Eight Million Gods and Demons
Hiroko Sherwin
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Eight Million Gods and Demons

Hiroko Sherwin
328 pages
November 2003
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Eight Million Gods and Demons.

Eight Million Gods and Demons starts out modestly, with a single woman in a single household. At first the narrative seems compulsively narrow, as wrapped up as Emi Imura in her concern over her husband’s infidelity and her own apparent infertility. But slowly, other stories are drawn in empty spaces of her narrative; her husband, Taku, appears, his mistress, Hana, Emi’s mother, with each new story introducing still others in an avalanche of complexity. As each person reflects the lives of those around them, their shared experience reflects their home nation of Japan, taking the family and the country through galvanic changes.

Hiroko Shawin has a graceful flair for portraying life in all its everyday boredom and intensity. While Japan struggles through its imperialistic age, the family fights with everyday concerns—sibling rivalry, infidelity, the limits of age. Characters are introduced with no fanfare or official presentation, appearing in the story with an assumed familiarity more usually found in personal journals. Death comes in the same unannounced manner, with a quiet inevitability that makes the loss even more shocking. Children grow with the breathtaking suddenness known to every parent, love blooms and dies in all its irrational ways. The landscape of Japan plays its own active role in the tale, a character as much as a setting. The outrage of human atrocities is highlighted by the seeming indifference of the land, then made insignificant by a burst of tectonic fury.

As the country charges into war, Shawin’s understated writing becomes painfully effective. Starting with an unexpected and catastrophic earthquake, the quiet struggles for domestic harmony and idealistic purity are lost in a pounding drumbeat of death. There is the death of ideals, as Taku sees his beloved country fall under the sway of militaristic tyrants. Characters that have been introduced as gentle children lose themselves in bloody quests for acceptance and purpose. And there is the simple unrelenting loss of life that comes with a total war. With the exception of one soldier lost in New Guinea, all the family’s losses happen in the Japanese islands, as fall to Allied bombs, illness, madness, or the privations of war.

Historical fiction is often hampered by a foreknowledge of events to come. Japan’s march to war, and its internal struggle through militarism and tyranny, could lose some of its fear with the knowledge of the peace to come. Shawin creates the intensity of a immediate crisis and the tension of unanswered fears through the deep involvement of her characters. All crises end; the readers know it, and throughout the novel, the characters find some hope in the assurance that peace must eventually come again. The fear comes not from the situation itself, but the unknown changes it must bring. Japan may survive the war; from the first rumble of the earthquake, it is clear that the Imuras may not. The expansive family cast that Shawin has spent most of the novel creating wither away with heart-catching speed. As the war rages, Eight Million Gods and Demons becomes a desperate race, as if reaching the end of the book faster might stop the horrors still to come.

The end does come in its own time, and in the wasteland of postwar Japan Shawin manages to create a slight breath of hope. Eight Million Gods and Demons is a heartbreaking book, full of tragedy and betrayal on levels intimate and grand. But Hiroko Shawin delivers the most power in her brief glimpses of hope and forgiveness, delicate moments that will fall apart if held tightly. They support the burdens of pain throughout the story, and may prove enough to defend a heart against Eight Million Gods and Demons.

© 2004 by Sarah Meador for Curled Up With a Good Book.

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