The basics: Set during World War II, When The Emperor Was Divine is the story of a Japanese-American family living in Berkeley, California. The novel begins with the mother reading a notice about Japanese internment camp, and she begins packing her possessions, and those of her children.
My thoughts: Julie Otsuka's prose is sparse and haunting. She manages the ultimate storytelling: she shows more than she tells. You won't find lengthy descriptions of people's feelings here. You won't even find the word interment camp. Otsuka dumps the reader immediately into the story without providing many orienting details. In this sense, the reader shares the confusion of the children, Those who are familiar with this time period will clearly know what's happening, but even readers who are not familiar with the internment camps of the time will slowly come to understand the time.
Otsuka doesn't shy away from the harshness of what her characters face. Although slim (less than two hundred pages), the novel stretches over a number of years. Despite covering so much time in so few pages, it doesn't feel as though anything is lacking. In fact, dwelling on those periods with Otsuka's unflinching attention would likely be too much.
The verdict: When the Emperor Was Divine is a beautiful, tragic window into an ugly time in American history. Otsuka's unique storytelling shines brightly in this slim novel.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 162 pages
Publication date: September 10, 2002
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