Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

by Diane Leach

30 November 2009


An Unrealistic Journey

cover art

Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Picking Bones from Ash

(Graywolf Press)
US: Oct 2009

Mockett’s flawed debut centers on three Japanese women: Akiko, who is raising her fatherless daughter, Satomi, in rural Kuma-ume, Japan after World War II, Satomi herself, a talented musician, and Satomi’s daughter, Rumi, who lives in present-day San Francisco.

Mockett, the biracial daughter of a Japanese mother and Caucasian father, is a talented writer with an impressive grasp of East Asian culture and art. Deft comparisons of Japanese and Western cultural mores are woven through the book, including the places where cultures intersect—and clash. But the novel’s heart transcends culture in its examination of the relationship between mothers and daughters. 

Picking Bones from Ash opens with young Satomi, who lives with Akiko above the pub where local men come to drink and eat simple meals. Akiko’s glamour, beauty, and expertly flirtatious manner make her a figure of suspicion, a situation exacerbated by the absence of a husband. Akiko refuses to speak of Satomi’s father or any other aspect of her past. Instead, she turns her intense focus on cultivating Satomi’s musical ability. Talent, she teaches Satomi, is far more important than beauty: talent is a commodity, one that will ensure Satomi will never need a man.

Life in rural, postwar Japan is often difficult. Food is scarce, but Satomi always has piano lessons. Satomi adores her mother and wants nothing more than to please her. A headstrong, intelligent girl, she overcomes her fears to venture far into the woods despite the oni, or demons, reputed to live there. On her journey she locates some precious bamboo shoots, which she brings triumphantly home to Akiko, who prepares a feast. 

When Satomi wins a major piano competition, she is shocked to learn that Akiko has been busy making other plans: specifically, she is marrying a Mr. Horie, a wealthy widower with two teenaged daughters. The horrified Satomi moves with her mother to the Horie household. As Akiko musters all her charms to befriend Mr. Horie’s daughters, Chieko and Mineko, Satomi declares war on her stepsisters, oblivious to the reasons driving Akiko’s behavior. Meanwhile, she earns a scholarship to a music school in Sendai, then is accepted to Tokyo’s University for the Arts. 

Cosmopolitan Tokyo is a revelation, a wonderful place save one missing piece: Akiko. But as Satomi grows more confident in her new surroundings, her natural independence asserts itself. After defying her piano teacher, she is nearly dismissed. She begins studying outside the University under the famous Rie Sanada, who successfully trains her for a place at Paris’s École Normale. Besides hounding Satomi about her “Japanese-accented” execution of Western classical music, Sanada also attempts to prepare her for Parisian life by cooking a Western-style meal.  Satomi is unnerved by so much cutlery.

“You have to learn to eat soup with a spoon,” she said. (Sanada)  “That’s what they do.”

Satomi is indeed initially overwhelmed by the sea of gaijin—Caucasians—who all look so very alike, by the incomprehensible babble of French, by her teacher, who is temperamental and, as Sanada warned, finds her playing “too Japanese”—lacking emotion. Satomi slowly acclimates, befriending a fellow classmate, who helps her with French and includes her in his menagerie of artistic friends. The year is 1968, and Satomi begins relishing her very un-Japanese freedom. 

It is at this point that the book begins unraveling. Satomi meets charming, handsome Timothy Snowden.  Snowden is vaguely unsavory, with a hand in numerous enterprises. One of his more lucrative pursuits is scouting Japanese art, which he sells to wealthy collectors.

Realizing that Satomi can discern the authentic from replicas, or spy priceless objects heaped amidst antique shop junk, he begins taking her on buying trips through Amsterdam and Japan. This pulls Satomi from her music studies, and though Mockett makes earlier reference to both Akiko’s love of porcelain and Satomi’s drawing abilities, it’s still unrealistic to expect Satomi is an expert art appraiser, particularly after a lifetime spent at the piano. But after Akiko dies, Satomi abruptly leaves her musical studies to follow Timothy. 

The shift from headstrong young woman to doe-eyed, compliant lover, while not unheard of, is surprising given the earlier strength of Satomi’s character. When Timothy’s unsavory business dealings land him in prison, Satomi is utterly lost.

At this juncture François, a business associate of Timothy’s, enters the picture. Posing as an anthropologist, Francois has scoped out the art collections of numerous Japanese temples. With Timothy’s black book of connections in hand, the pair head to San Francisco, living out of van in Bolinas. There François drums up enough business to open an Asian Antiques store while Satomi underwrites the venture working in a vegetable shop. 

Satomi loathes San Francisco, misses her mother, and wishes François would let up his endless courting. But she discovers she enjoys repairing their “finds”—usually stolen items—and is good at figuring out how to mend torn paintings. Gradually the couple’s funds increase and Satomi responds to François’s advances, only to become pregnant with Rumi. 

François is ecstatic. Satomi is appalled. When the infant is born, Satomi makes a decision leaving her daughter motherless. The narration then moves to Rumi, living with her father in a Victorian, his antiques shop on the first floor. 

Trained from infancy to identify Japanese art, by age 13 Rumi has outdone her father, for she has the unique ability to “hear” bowls, scrolls, and paintings, which literally speak to her, describing their creators, owners, and provenances. At this point, what began as a literary novel becomes a ghost story. Apart from the chattering antiques, Rumi is haunted by a ghost residing in a kannon, a sculpture of a goddess intended to guide lost souls back to the Karmic Wheel. This kannon, who implores Rumi to take her home to Japan, is located beneath the floorboards of François’s secret room, a small, jammed space where he hides recently stolen antiques. 

Adding to the confusion is Timothy Snowden’s reappearance. Snowden is now a Zen Buddhist master, incidentally seeking just the right kannon to adorn his new Zen Stillness Center, where several Caucasians have thrown off their annoyingly gaijin lives in search of Buddha.

Snowden does his best to cultivate Rumi’s friendship, telling her about Satomi, who is presumed dead, pressing her for information, and behaving in ways not entirely avuncular. Increasingly suspicious of her father, Rumi abruptly travels to Japan, determined to locate the kannon’s true home and learn the truth about Satomi. 

Rumi’s journey is so unrealistic that the reader must be willing to set aside nearly all that went before, for now the supernatural has the upper hand, putting Rumi through a series of quests more appropriately found in Lord of the Rings. While these tests impart ancient Japanese customs, they are patently unrealistic in what began as a fairly straightforward novel. And though Rumi’s many questions are answered, the reader is left puzzling over what she finds and her response to it: without giving away the ending, Rumi is far too credulous. Or perhaps the reader is far to incredulous. 

This is a shame, for Mockett is an excellent writer whose descriptions of Japanese life are fascinating. At the best moments, her characters are strong, believable people; Timothy and François are particularly compelling. But there are too many threads that don’t quite pull together, and while Mockett’s attempt to blend three eras of Japanese life is admirable, the book dissolves, particularly in the last pages. Nonetheless, Mockett is a talent whose future work is worth looking forward to.

Picking Bones from Ash


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