A Girl Like You tackles a little talked about episode in American history – the internment of US citizens of Japanese descent during the Second World War. Opening in 1939, this engrossing story is told from the point of view of Satomi Baker, the strong minded, beautiful daughter of a Japanese-American mother and a white American father later killed at Pearl Harbour. In 1942 Satomi and her mother are shipped off to the Manzanar internment camp. Conditions are atrocious – even the most basic needs are barely accommodated. The chapters dealing with the internees’ plight are some of the most effective and affecting in the book: Satomi’s mother comes into herself, out from under the shadow of her beloved but domineering husband; Satomi falls passionately in love with Haru, determined to fight for his country despite its appalling treatment of him and his family; she attaches herself to the camp’s doctor and forms a tender bond with Cora, a young orphan; enduring friendships, close as familial ties, are formed. All this is described in an understated almost reportage style which makes it all the more vivid. When the internees are released, Satomi returns to the family farm only to find that it has been sold for a derisory amount of money which she uses to move to New York. There she meets a rich dilettante looking for a marriage of convenience but falls in love with a man who bears more than a passing resemblance to her father. To reveal more would be to spoil the ending which was a little too good to be true for me in a novel which deals head on with the harsh realities of this shameful episode made all the more shocking by the quotations which preface the book: one reporting back from an investigation commissioned prior to internment attesting to the loyalty of Japanese-Americans; the others, bigoted expressions of outraged prejudice.
Readers with long memories may recall David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, also published by Bloomsbury, a huge bestseller back in the 90s. I sold stacks of it in my bookselling days. It was that longed for book in the trade – one which makes it to the backlist and continues to sell. It, too, looked at the prejudice faced by Japanese-Americans this time from the point of view of a strawberry farmer wrongfully accused of killing a white American. I’m not sure how the book was received in the States or how much of an issue the treatment of Japanese-Americans has been there but it’s interesting that the same subject has caught the imagination of a British novelist. I couldn’t help thinking of Guantanamo as I read A Girl Like You but before we get too smug about our own treatment of minorities perhaps we should remember that during the same period the British rounded up Germans and Austrians, herding them into our own versions of Mazanar. Ironically, it seems that many of them were Jews fleeing persecution.