Saturday, May 7, 2011

Plum Wine

Hello Flower!

My Mother had five sisters. All six of the W girls had a tremendous amount of similarities and differences. They were all independent, smart women who could go months and sometimes years without seeing one another without any loss of intimacy. Looking back I see that the relationships between those sisters had a huge influence on me. Those women defined what my relationships with my five sisters and my girlfriends would be.

When Aunt G would come to visit with my Mother whether alone or with a combination of children and husband she and my Mother would always open a bottle of plum wine. Whatever else was going on and no matter what time of day she stopped by, out came a bottle of plum wine. Neither one of them ever even seemed to get tipsy let alone drunk but the bottle would be drained.

I'm sure that I must tried the wine on several occasions but I have no memory of what it tasted like. I do remember the bottle. It was a clear glass bottle, a little more squat and square than a regular wine bottle. The label had two branches with pale pink flowers (plum blossoms presumably) intertwined around the name of the wine and the makers. I always thought that it was pretty and was fascinated that the name of the wine was in Japanese. Japanese. For ten year old me that was the pinnacle of worldly.

Of course when I came across a novel called Plum Wine with those same flowers on the cover I had to buy it. It wasn't just the misty eyed sentimentality that got me to open my wallet. Heck no! This baby clocks in at 352 pages and you know I like the heft.

Plum Wine, by Angela Davis-Gardner is set in 1966 Japan. Barbara is a young American student teaching English at Tokyo University. She is happy in the life there and is especially attached to an older Japanese woman, Michiko. Michiko has been friend and surrogate mother to Barbara. When Michiko loses her struggle with cancer, Barbara is devastated.

After Michiko's death Barbara finds that she has been left a chest filled with bottles of plum wine by her friend. There are twenty bottles in all. Barbara discovers that each bottle is wrapped in rice paper and on the paper in Michiko's elegant calligraphy is written a portion of her life story. Unable to read Japanese, Barbara asks a Seiji, a potter, for help translating. Barbara learns that Michiko and Seiji are Hiroshima survivors. They are called hibakusha and are reviled by other Japanese.

Davis-Gardner uses the revelations that Michiko's writings provide to open up an inventive storyline and to examine the national character of the Japanese in relation to individual experience. The story of sixty years of tragedy and rebirth both personal and of Japanese history are told through the elderly Michiko, Seiji and Barbara. The sense of privacy and restraint that we associate with that nation are a moving juxtaposition to the love and tenderness between the three main characters.

Plum Wine has long hidden secrets enough to satisfy, a marvelously intimate look at a fascinating culture and quietly commanding writing that will keep you spellbound .


P.S. As I said Plum Wine takes place in 1966. How the Japanese in general look at the hibakusha now is not something addressed in this novel.


  1. Just finished reading. I've been drawn so much to this book that it felt so realistic as if I was living right in the hearts of certain characters like Barbara and Seiji. I can't help but cry reading the line: "From your lips/ I came to understand/ the language of plum wine". The end of the novel made me kinda felt helpless knowing that I cannot do something to make things work out for both of them. The story seems to have molded destinies; that of Seiji and Barbara. How could Love between them just end up like that? So sad to think and I just cant stop crying. Thinking: so much to loose between them, and Seiji just letting himself and everything perhaps what's ahead of him and Barbara be carried by the PAST had sort of disappointed me. I really cannot fully understand Seiji's reasons for not freeing himself from the grief he had felt since the event of failing Mitchi. He must understand that things, everything from the start had already been shaped: they are destined to be with each other. I am certain that every second of Seiji's life will be shadowed by his love for Barbara, and vice versa. I just dream that the author perhaps will continue the story. Barbara's search for Mitchi's relatives in America and that in the end, her path will still be directed to Seiji's heart. Like a Plum Wine that never looses its taste rather becomes stronger as the time passes by.

  2. You summed this wonderful novel up beautifully.

  3. Thank you Happy! And I'm glad that the author also liked my comment and we became friends through facebook. I'm trying to get all her books. Have you read her newly published book A butterfly's Child. It has a Japanese taste on it as well.

  4. Hey Naiko. I did read Butterfly's Child. I liked it very much!