The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Title: The Gods of Heavenly Punishment
Author: Jennifer Cody Epstein

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1930s / 1940s / World War II / Japan / US Navy / Architecture / War Crimes / Parent-Child Relationships / Post-War Society)
Publisher/Publication Date: W. W. Norton & Company (3/11/2013)
Source: Edelweiss

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did, in a matter of hours!
One-sentence summary: The interconnected stories of an American couple, an expat architect and his photographer son, children who love and fear their fathers, the beauty of Japan, and the impact of World War II on them all.
Reading Challenges: 7 Continents, 7 Billion People, 7 Books, E-books, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do, very much -- the black-and-white photograph is reminiscent of a photographer character, and I'm rather grateful the cover is slightly more upbeat that some of the action!

I'm reminded of...: Jennifer Haigh, Ursula Hegi

First line: The climb felt almost arduous, the engine juddering and restarting four times during the creaking ascent up the Ferris wheel.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you're a fan of Japan, World War II fiction, or complicated characters who are lovely and awful.

Why did I get this book?: I'm drawn to World War II narratives that aren't wholly from a US or British viewpoint and this one intrigued me.

Review: Historical fiction set during wartime is a favorite genre of mine (or, I suppose, a 'favorite' -- I'm not a fan of war) because there's a real focus on the ordinary, everyday people against a massive canvas. Jennifer Cody Epstein's novel represents what I most love about this genre: it's illuminating and educational without being cold, it's emotional in ways both familiar and alien, and it offers the reader a place to see herself in a situation she, hopefully, will never experience.

Set between 1935 and 1962, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment shifts between Japan and the US and follows a handful of people loosely connected by their pre-war lives in Japan (or, in one case, the US). Written in a vignette style, each chapter opens with a location and date, often jumping years ahead of the previous chapter. Epstein's skill is seen in that the narrative never felt rushed nor choppy, and the characters indeed changed during the unseen time.

There's Anton, a Czech expat and brilliant architect who loves Japan but betrays his soul's home to help the US war effort and his son Bobby, a sensitive photographer with his own secrets; Kenji, Anton's Japanese best friend and colleague, a visionary for Japan during the war; Hana, his beautiful but resentful wife and their daughter Yoshi, who witnesses betrayal, crime, and the horrific bombing of Tokyo. There's a young American pilot who joins 'Doolittle's Raiders', his smart wife and devoted younger brother.

Delightfully and disturbingly, Epstein's characters are human, warm and flawed. I liked Kenji despite myself - and his cruelties - just as I adored broken Hana. There wasn't a particular 'villain', per se, as most everyone was articulated in shades of gray. The descriptions of time and place put me immediately into the story, and I couldn't put this book down. The tension comes from needing to know who survives and at what cost; from the meager hope more than one ends up happy.

Refreshingly, the novel's focus on Japan and sympathy for the Japanese makes this an appealing read. While portraying atrocities on both sides, Epstein also evokes very complicated characters who hate and love their homelands, adopted or otherwise, who are selfish and selfless, who represent the innumerable dead.

While WWII is oft covered territory in historical fiction, I found Epstein's focus on Japan and the 1945 bombing of Tokyo to be fascinating (albeit horrifying). Much like one of the viewers at a photo exhibition, I assumed Tokyo was 'just bombed' but the reality is far more devastating (it was the deadliest raid of World War II, in fact).

I was strongly reminded of Jennifer Haigh's Baker Towers and Ursula Hegi's Floating in My Mother's Palm, both books I loved. This was a zippy read -- I finished it in a few hours -- but one that will linger with me.  Highly recommended, especially for those who enjoy World War II narratives or are interested in Japan.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer THREE readers a copy of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 10/4.

Be sure to check out my interview with Jennifer Cody Epstein tomorrow for another chance to enter!

Comments

  1. This sounds like a book I would love. And how come all the WWII books get such great covers? LOL

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    1. It's really so good -- I can't rec it enough. And I hear you on the covers -- even the books I hate have stunning covers!

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  2. I read her debut novel and really enjoyed it. I wish it were easier to keep up with all the authors whose books you enjoy. Your review has put her back on the radar for me.

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    1. I really want to read that one -- she's a wonderful writer. I know what you mean about keeping a bead on those great writer -- she's one I'll keep watching for! Hope you get to read this one sometime!

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  3. I love these types of loosely connected stories. This sounds right up my alley!

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    1. Me too! And Epstein does it so well -- I was just gutted more than once, in the best way...!

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  4. I'm drawn to that time period and love that you compared it to Jennifer Haigh so I'll have to look for it. Thanks for the giveaway!

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    1. Yeah, it hit all the right notes for me in terms of plot, place, and style. So good!

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  5. Replies
    1. It was great -- I hope you give it a try!

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  6. Looks like a great book. Love the cover too!

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    Replies
    1. I know, the cover is just wonderful -- it's so bittersweet!

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  7. Great review, Audra. I also really enjoyed this one.

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  8. Good evening, Audra,

    I am enjoying coming back to your blog to scope out the next book your reading & recommending!! I stopped by last week or the week before originally, I believe for Queen's Gambit! I murmur your thoughts on this section of literature,... I am drawn into war stories myself, especially those stories that etch into the heart of the two couples struggling to keep their connection & make sense of everything that is happening around them. I don't believe everyone who reads this part of literature is necessarily advocating for war, rather instead, they are appreciative of the stories that speak to the human heart and the bond that threads through us all!

    I liked how you expressed the book unique style of settling the story into your mind and leaving it there a bit wantonly afterwards! You gave me the impression that the characters I'd find inside will stir my heart and leave me museful after I encounter them! Always an inclination I am in search of!

    This is one book I found awhile ago, and am happy to see its receiving a warm reception! Its been on my TBR List in other words!

    I'm thankful you are offering a bookaway!
    By which I have entered! :)

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  9. I really liked this one too, and became a new fan of Epstein's. Thanks for citing the other 2 authors that you said this book reminded you of. I will check them out :-)

    Cecilia

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    1. Cecilia -- Baker Towers was devastating, too, much like this one, in that very delicious way. Let me know when/if you do get to them -- would love to hear what you think!

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  10. I like the bit of WWII and focus on Tokyo. I don't think I've read anything with the focus on Japan in that period.

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    1. I agree -- I've read some books set in Malaysia or Hong Kong during that time, but not Japan -- nor featuring Japanese characters -- and it was really quite a revelation. I'm not always in the mood for WWII fic but this one was fabu.

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  11. I just loved this book; it was so well written and the characters full of dynamism and nuance. I cannot recommend it enough. LOVED, and happy you loved it too.

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    1. Right?! It blew me away. I just inhaled it.

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  12. I've had my eye on this for some time... it's hard to resist that beautiful cover!

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  13. Have you ever tried any high fantasy? I actually like high fantasy for much the same reason you mention liking wartime historical fiction. The mix of individuals and epic events is very cool! Obviously you lose some realism when you transition to the fantasy genre, so you might not like it as well, but you also might :)

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  14. A book that focuses on Japan and on WWII is RIGHT up my alley. I looooved this one :D Another great review, thanks!

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    1. This was one of my favorite books this year!

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  15. This sounds lovely, especially the way you describe the complexity of the characters. Agree with other commenters, too - the cover is enchanting.

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  16. I think you captured this one perfectly! I loved Epstein's writing style and the complicated characters, and it focused on action during the war that I hadn't read about before. Great review!

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  17. This book sounds wonderful...I like the time period and the setting but, especially, the characters because they sound like a really interesting diverse of flawed, real people (my favorite kind). I'm not as ardent a fan of historical fiction as you are but I do love novels set during wartime...it's not the war that draws me, of course, it's the way people behave, come together and also I like to read about how our country and others 'behaved' during the war...do you know what I mean? Anyway, this was a great review that I thoroughly enjoyed Thanks, Audra!

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