My strategy of picking books based on interesting covers has led me in the right direction, again. This book called to me from the shelf, with the yellow map lines, the island in a churning sea, the solitary silhouette, the Japanese symbol, and the very peeved, Einstein-haired bird watching over it all. The whole thing was a giant question mark to me so, upon reading the dust jacket synopsis and finding out it was about WWII, I welcomed it into the family that is my TBR collection.
When Evan’s father dies, Evan finds a hand-bound yellow book on his desk—a book his father had been reading when he passed away. It is the diary of a Japanese soldier stranded on a small Pacific island in WWII. Why was his father reading it? Who was the American soldier also stranded there? And what could this possibly mean for Evan?
Aside from the interest piqued by the cover and synopsis, I had no expectations going into this novel. I’ve never read anything by Wynne-Jones, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from him, either. I was pleasantly surprised, though!
This book was a rare treasure: a book about a book. About 1/3 of the book takes place in the present day and 2/3 of the book are the journal entries of a Japanese soldier and an American soldier who find themselves enemies allied in order to survive on a deserted island, self-named Kokoro-Jima. The present day events are tied to the journal entries and, as Evan reads along, we share his surprise as he gains information as to how his own life is tied to the two inhabitants of Kokoro-Jima.
The writing was some of the most fluid and effortless language I’ve ever read. I truly felt as though I was tangled up in the thought process of a teenage boy. The main character, Evan, is a seventeen-year-old who just lost his father and is dealing with the mysterious nature of the book found on his father’s desk, the calls from the author’s son, and the appearance of his hitherto unknown grandfather, as if the overwhelming loss of his father and best friend wasn’t enough. The emotions are raw and real, sometimes surfacing at unwanted times and other times being choked down (as is often the case in real life), while the characters were relatable, pitiable, witty, and sometimes loathsome. All of the main characters were male and the story within the story was about war, an often male-dominated topic, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by man-stuff, adrift in a sea of testosterone. As a female reader, I was just as interested and impacted as any male reader.
The novel does take unexpected turns towards the paranormal, a fact which other readers have found irritating, according to other reviews. I rarely consider the fantastical to be irritating, an in the context of this book, I actually thought it was brave. War is such a difficult topic, as is the idea of being stranded without hope of rescue. Some may think that the including spirits and monsters makes light of a serious situation, but I disagree. I think the paranormal aspects made the soldiers more relatable, in terms of their reactions to the unfamiliar. And even if it did make light of war, so what? When faced with the unknown, is the known still relevant? When stranded on an island, is the enemy still your enemy? When faced with a REAL monster, is the “monster” inside your enemy still fearsome?
In terms of YA readers, this book would be a great supplemental text when learning about WWII (or any war, really). It challenges the idea of “enemy” in a way that is digestible but still potent for young readers. It would also be a good read for kids dealing with the death of a close friend or family member, or someone who might be estranged from extended family. Despite the YA title, the novel felt mature. Despite the serious issues it addresses, it still felt light and fun. Wynne-Jones is undoubtedly a talented writer, whose work I will continue to seek out in the future.