Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
by Jamie Ford
When the long boarded up Panama Hotel near downtown Seattle is bought and opened in 1986, Henry Lee's past is also opened and laid bare before him. A widow after years of taking care of a dying beloved wife, Henry must now enlist the help of his college aged son, Marty, to find a piece of his past buried in the basement of the hotel that was the storage grounds for Japanese families rounded up for encampment after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942, the year that Henry, a Chinese boy, fell in love with Keiko, a Japanese girl. It was also the year that his father disowned him.
Jamie Fords writing doesn't really compare with that of Sebastian Barry in The Secret Scriptures. It wasn't lyrical. It didn't make my heart flutter. It had a totally different effect on me. It disappeared from before my eyes to be replaced with living images of people and places. I call it reading but it felt more like watching a movie. It was the language of a storyteller. And I am sure that this will some day be made into a movie. If it is I will be among the first in line at the ticket counter.
Henry was such a lovable character. His attitude of quiet resignation was sad but understandable. It was clear that he tried hard to do what was right whenever he could. But as he told himself, sometimes you had to choose between what was right and what was best, which often meant making one sacrifice or another. Love or family honor? And what does it mean to be American anyway?
The relationships drive this story. There is Henry and his father, a stanch old Chinese man who hates Japan for waging war on his beloved home country. There is also Henry's mother who is obedient but finds ways to bend the rules because of her love for her son. Then there is the bond between Henry and Keiko, two Asian kids in an otherwise white school who share a love of Jazz and experience "the war years" together. And finally there is Henry's relationship with his own son, a tug-of-war between traditional and contemporary lifestyles.
In a word, I found this novel to be satisfying. I think everyone ought to read it. Highly recommend.
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