Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

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.

Publisher: Graywolf Press
Format: Hardcover
Author: Marie Mutsuki Mockett
Price: $24.00
Title: Picking Bones from Ash
Length: 304 pp
Publication Date: 2009-10

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less

Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

In a staid city like Washington, D.C., too many concert programs still stick to the basics. An endless litany of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky concerti clog the schedules and parades of overeager virtuosi seem unwilling to vary their repertoire for blasé D.C. concertgoers. But occasionally you encounter a concert that refreshes your perspective of the familiar. The works presented at The Kennedy Center on 25 October 2017 might be stalwarts of 20th century repertoire, but guest conductor Antonio Pappano, leading the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, reminded us how galvanizing the canonical can still be. Though grandiose executions of Respighi's The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome were the main event, the sold-out crowd gathered to see Martha Argerich perform one of her showpieces, Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.