book reviews , different studio guests each week. Join us every Thursday between 12 and 1pm on Radio Scilly 107.9fm or log on to

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Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Jamie Ford - Hotel on the corner of bitter and sweet

review by corinna christopher live on show 5th july 2012

This is a touching and moving account of an older man’s memories and past, his relationships with his father and son. It is a dual novel set in 2 times, 1986 and 1942.

It starts with Henry Lee in 1986, living in Seattle, recently bereaved and visiting the Panama Hotel which in the past was on the border between the Chinese and Japanese districts in this city. It has been abandoned and derelict for the past years and now about to undergo renovation. In the basement of this hotel there has been discovered belongings of 37 Japanese families. Henry manages to get access to these possessions, looking for momentos of the Okabe family . He is soon back in the past a young boy of 12 in 1942.

He was the only son of a very traditional Chinese family, very keen to be assimilated into American society. Henry was forbidden to speak Chinese and sent to an all American school where he had to wear a label stating “I am Chinese”. This was because to all local American residents all Asian people looked the same ! America was at war with Japan and the recent bombing at Pearl Harbour had changed a lot of attitudes towards this race.

Whilst at school Henry came across a young Japanese girl (the only one) Keiko Okabe. As outsiders they developed a close bond and their interest in Black jazz music further enhanced this. They became very friendly with Sheldon Holden a black saxophone street player.

Henry’s father was strict and wanted nothing to do with the Japanese district or their occupants. The American government decided to expel all the Japanese and they were herded up with minimum luggage and sent to displacement camps. Henry and Keiko were distraught but there was nothing they could do .

What follows and how their relationship fares over a long period takes up the rest of the book. It would spoil the plot if I revealed the outcome. We resume Henry’s story in 1986 when he is with his son Marty , and they conclude with a poignant conclusion. In spite of a very happy marriage Henry had always felt there was a hole in his life.

I found the book a little difficult to get into but it gradually improved and it narrated an event in American history that I did not know. The way the Japanese were summarily removed although most were anxious to be integrated , was shocking and disturbing, the book describes the situation well.

The book is historically accurate and the author did much research. The Panama Hotel is a real place and Japanese families’ goods were stored there. Some of these artefacts are on display in a nearby tea-room.

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