By Andrew Lam (North Point, Fla.: Tiny Fox Press, 2019, 283 pp., $15.95, paperback)
Andrew Lam, the author of the book under review, studied history at Yale University — where he graduated summa cum laude — and afterward became a retinal surgeon. His third book, “Repentance,” is a work of historical fiction that is debatably comparable to such classic works of this genre pertaining to the Japanese American historical experience as Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston’s “Farewell to Manzanar” (1973) and David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars” (1994).
All three of these books are what I would characterize as “cinematic novels.” Two of them have already been made into motion pictures, in 1976 and 1999, respectively, and I would not be surprised if “Repentance” would likewise be transformed into a noteworthy feature film. In keeping with this sanguine forecast, I will devote the remainder of this review to delineating why I believe Lam’s volume quintessentially lends itself to silver screen portrayal. In 2017 novelist and screenwriter Irena Brignull formulated seven tips for prospective writers of cinematic novels: 1) establish a strong premise; 2) think visually; 3) provide a well-made structure; 4) create dramatic tension; 5) employ action and dialogue to reveal motivations; 6) use memorable set pieces; and 7) afford fully developed central characters with clearly defined journeys. Although Lam in all likelihood did not self-consciously set out to produce a cinematic novel per se and almost certainly was unaware of the formulation posited by Brignull, I am confident that she would applaud “Repentance” for artfully embodying all of the elements for success that she itemized.
The premise or overarching idea of “Repentance” is to relate the complex World War II Japanese American story as a whole through the experiential lens of one extended family, the Tokunagas. Lam undertakes this by linking members of this somewhat dysfunctional kin group with the sacrificial heroics of Nisei soldiers in the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, many of whom were Hawai‘i and mainland U.S. volunteers with families unjustly incarcerated in American-style concentration camps.
In regard to visualization, “Repentance” is communicated less through the inner thoughts and feelings of its characters than by the large and close-up settings in which their interactions transpire. The large settings encompass the battlefields of Europe, most especially France, and the imprisoned barracks community of Manzanar, Calif., and the close-up ones extend from the emergency room of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, the “theater of operations” for eminent Sansei brain surgeon Dr. Daniel Tokunaga, to the Los Angeles home of his parents, Keiko, a onetime Manzanar inmate, and Ryoji “Ray” Tokunaga, a decorated 442nd veteran from Hawai‘i.
In terms of structure, Lam provides a well-planned plot, replete with strategically ordered chapters, scenes, and turning points, all building systematically to a climactic ending, while making room for twists, surprises, and backstories. Most of the chapters alternate in time between the late 1990s and the mid-1940s within far-flung venues, and all are carefully sequenced so as to convey a deftly choreographed narrative that is dynamic, enthralling, multifaceted and unpredictable.
Lam achieves dramatic tension both through juxtaposing the hopes and dreams of his characters against the obstacles preventing their realization and by pointing up the gap between what his characters and his readers know. Many of the characters in “Repentance” yearn for love, often unrequited, for honor, sometimes elusive, and happiness, frequently thwarted. Because many of Lam’s characters are less than forthcoming, their truths are typically shared with readers only incrementally and episodically.
Relative to action and dialogue, Lam makes the former take priority over the latter and mostly uses dialogue to trigger reactions that have striking effects. Instead of deluging readers with mere words, he stimulates their thoughts and feelings by engaging them in reflecting upon the behavior of his characters and their interactions, or lack thereof. For him, it is words with heft as well as charged silences that truly matter.
In the case of set pieces, “Repentance” abounds with big, exciting, memorable moments, ones which stay with readers after putting down the book. Some of these moments foreground significant action, like a tense military incident or an emotional collapse, while others are revelatory, as the discovery of a crucial document or the avowal of a long-withheld secret.
Lam’s characters, especially his central ones, have discernable goals that readers can get behind and embark on journeys, even emotional and ethical ones, that are normally quite clearly defined. The most important and best personalized of the author’s assemblage of characters, are Daniel Tokunaga and his presumed biological father, Ray Tokunaga, who throughout the novel wage a cold and, sporadically, hot generational, temperamental, and moral war against one another. Other notable characters, such as Daniel’s Nisei mother, his Scandinavian American wife, Beth, his high school Nikkei girlfriend, Anne Mikado, and his father’s closest wartime buddy, Hiro Fukuda, are imaginatively rendered in Lam’s beautifully calibrated prose style. A common theme binding together the majority of Lam’s cast of characters is their journey in search of atonement.
This marvelous novel deserves to become a majestic movie.