A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding – Jackie Copleton

A man named Hideo Wantanabe appears on the doorstep of Amaterasu Takahashi in Pennsylvania claiming to be her grandson. But he can’t be as Amaterasu’s daughter and grandson perished in the atomic bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki on the 9th August, 1945.

No, I am not haunted by how she died but why. If I am to be the only remaining teller of this tale, what and how much can I admit to myself and to others? Should I begin with this acknowledgement: my daughter might still be here today if it had not been for me.

Amaterasu goes on to tell a tale of forbidden love between her teenager daughter and Sato, a doctor friend of her husband. Many secrets about the past, including Amaterasu’s childhood and life before she married her husband, Kenzo, are revealed.


A couple of weeks ago, I said there’s usually one book on the Bailey’s Prize list I really dislike. This year I’m afraid there’s two. I found the scenario implausible and the writing oddly stilted. I had an issue with the whole novel stemming from the mother’s guilt and shame; why do women always have to feel guilty?

The structure was also a problem: every chapter began with an extract from An English Dictionary of Japanese Culture which was purely for a Western audience with no knowledge of Japanese culture and meant that the reader was jerked out of the story at the beginning of every chapter. As the chapters are only short, this exacerbated the problem. The story was told from Amaterasu’s point-of-view but as there were many things she couldn’t know diary entries from her daughter, Yuko, and letters from her daughter’s lover/Kenzo’s friend, Sato, were built into the narrative. However, the diary and the letters never stood alone, they were sandwiched between narrative from Amaterasu in which she continued to describe events she could only have known about second-hand. Again this had the effect of taking me out of the story – I never forgot that I was being told a tale someone had made up. Disappointing.


Thanks to Hutchinson Books for the review copy.

11 thoughts on “A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding – Jackie Copleton

  1. I have to say I’m not surprised. When the long list came out and I checked through all of the books, this one stood out for being a novel about the repercussions of Nagasaki for Japanese people, written by an American who had lived in Nagasaki for a couple of years and obviously become interested in the history. I don’t think expat writers *can’t* write good books about the places where they’ve been, but I think it takes more than a few years to come to terms with the atmosphere and attitude of a place where you’ve settled. Americans in particular seem to have this weird idea that “having been to” someplace = understanding it (though I know Copleton’s English).


  2. I seriously doubt that any Japanese would call their daughter Amaterasu – the goddess of the sun and light from which the Emperor was originally believed to have descended. OK, so they don’t believe in it anymore, but it still stretches plausibility – unless there was a very good reason to call her that in the book?


  3. Am working my way through the Baileys list and had put this at bottom of pile ( well it alternates with Portable Veblen for that bottom rung as struggle with the squirrel thing!). I’d not been likely to get to it anyway but your review has made me sure of that!!


  4. Pingback: The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2016 | The Writes of Woman

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s