Jamie Ford’s debut novel begins with the discovery of many familial belongings in the basement of the boarded up Panama Hotel in Seattle. Hidden during the Second World War, when thousands of Japanese families were removed to internment camps, the cache leads main character Henry Lee to revisit his past, and thus begin a search of his own.
At its heart, this novel is a love story that crosses cultures and generations. Two lines of story intertwine – one set in 1986 and the other the early 1940s. The latter illuminates the former, serving as an intricate and emotional back-story that also sheds light on Henry’s relationship with his son. The earlier narrative explores Henry’s difficulties of growing up as the only Chinese boy in a white school, and being mistaken for Japanese in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, during a time of great tension and difficulty. Henry finds solace in his friendship with Keiko, a Japanese girl sent to the same school, a friendship that he must hide from his parents, and protect against all odds when the evacuations begin.
…with Ford’s “flashback” style gradually explaining Henry’s actions…
It is jazz music that bridges the gap between the two narratives. Henry and Keiko find refuge and an ally in the music and punctuating the novel is Henry’s quest to find an old Oscar Holden record – an incredibly rare and almost mythical relic from Henry’s childhood. The significance of the record is not revealed until near the end of the novel, with Ford’s “flashback” style gradually explaining Henry’s actions and his fascination with the Panama hotel.
There are very few clues that this is a debut novel. The structure, in general, works very well and both strands of the story – the 1940s and 1986 are captivating, making this an intriguing read. Despite the simple style, Ford creates complex, believable characters that will transport you to the heart of Seattle and into the heart of the story.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is published by Alison and Busby and is available for £12.99.