Fiction – paperback; Penguin Putnam Inc USA; 356 pages; 2000.
Every so often you come across a book that makes you rejoice in the sheer beauty of the English language and the power of the novel to change your perspective on so many different things.
In A Gesture Life Chang-Rae Lee has delivered one of the most elegantly restrained pieces of fiction I have ever read and yet, despite the unhurried prose, it brims with suspense, so much so I was reluctant to put the book down and read it within a matter of days.
It’s a rare, almost perfect novel that provides such an eloquent insight into the nature of human relationships that I don’t honestly know how to condense the magic of this profoundly moving and deeply unsettling story into one short review that will do A Gesture Life any kind of justice.
In fact, I’d argue that the blurb on my Penguin edition, doesn’t even come close to explaining what this story is about, and I suspect that most people would overlook the book entirely should they stumble upon it in a bookstore or library. Personally, I can’t even remember why I bought it, other than the ringing one-word endorsements — “Stunning,” New York Times Book Review; “Unforgettable,” USA Today; “Mesmerising,” San Francisco Chronicle Book Review — on the front cover must have spoken to me on some deeply unconscious level. Even so, this book lay unread in my bedside cabinet for nine months before I decided to pick it up.
Once I picked it up, I was taken on a sagacious journey that allowed me to walk in another man’s shoes. The fact that that man was an elderly Japanese-American speaks volumes for Chang-rae Lee’s abilities as a story teller.
Weaving dual narratives, set a generation apart, Lee is able to build up a rounded portrait of a man, Franklin ‘Doc’ Hata, who spends his life adapting to a new culture by behaving with abject politeness in order to be accepted, first, as an orphaned Korean boy adopted by a Japanese family, and then as an immigrant in America where he runs a medical supply store in a well-to-do suburb of New York.
Here in Bedley Run ‘Doc’ leads a quiet, tranquil and commercially successful existence. He buys an expensive house, adopts a Korean girl, Sunny, and becomes romantically involved with a local widow.
But ‘Doc’s life, his passivity, his politeness, covers a much deeper malaise that is revealed through a series of seamless flashbacks. These reveal the horrors he confronted while a medical officer with the Imperial Army during the Second World War. While interned in a Burmese camp he oversaw the health of a group of ‘comfort girls’, young Korean women held captive to’service’ the soldiers, which deeply disturbed him.
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that it is these expertly written flashbacks that make this novel what it is. They are superbly paced and enrich the present story by giving the reader little nuggets of information that help illuminate Doc’s modern-day behaviour: the shaky rapport he has with his daughter, why he values his standing in the Bedley Run community, how he cannot allow himself to be emotionally frank with his lover – or anyone else for that matter.
The impact of the flashbacks is heightened by the horror of the narrative which focuses on some astonishingly brutal, gruesome and obscene scenes, some of which reduced me to tears. This is in stark contrast to the suburban melancholia that characterises the rest of the book.
A Gesture Life is a beautifully moving novel that weaves the past with the present. The longing, regret and sadness resonate off the page. But it’s not without hope – friendship, forgiveness, redemption and atonement are all explored. And by the last page you can’t help thinking that Doc’s pain might have been worth it in the end…