Bailey's Prize, books, Reading, Women Writers

Jackie Copleton’s “A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding”

“It is such a lovely thing to be able to show the world how you see it, the shadows and the light, and the spaces in between. We miss those details in everyday life. Art reminds us of what we have no time to see.”

51bZRSpSwoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Staccato. Measured. Restrained. These were the words at the forefront of my mind throughout my reading of Jackie Copleton’s “A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding.” Copleton’s is a story of loss, betrayal, and the inconceivable effects of war.

Set alternately in Nagasaki, Japan in the days leading up to and in the aftermath of its atomic bombing by Americans and in America after the war, Copleton speaks from the perspective of Amaterasu, a Japanese woman who fled Nagasaki shortly after surviving its utter devastation. The novel starts with an elderly Amaterasu, settled in America for nearly 40 years, who answers the door to a man claiming to be her grandson Hideo, someone she believes to have been killed on that fateful day in 1945. From that dramatic opening, Copleton slowly, gracefully unfurls the story of Amaterasu – her childhood of neglect and worse, her tense relationship with her daughter Yuko, and her intense survivor’s guilt.

“[I]f I believed in a god, my deity would have been a vengeful one. He would have ruled my death alongside my daughter too easy an outcome. My punishment must never stop being dispensed. My life was my sackcloth and my ashes.”

Copleton’s language is carefully curated, painted in delicate strokes that (to my culturally-limited self) evoke the calligraphy and poetry I associate with traditional Japan. When translated into Japanese, some of her lines could rightly be Haiku:

“The end of a first love is operatic in its drama, physical in its showing.”

“We do terrible things because we can, and only sometimes because we must.”

And her poetic touch extends to extremely unpoetic subject matter – atomic warfare. Through the voice of Amaterasu, Copleton somehow captures the event itself in a way that is rending, moving, unavoidable.

“There can be no word for what we heard that day. There must never be. To give this sound a name might mean it could happen again. What word can capture the roar of every thunderstorm you might have heard, every avalanche and volcano and tsunami that you might have seen tear across the land, every city consumed by flames and waves and winds? Never find the language for such an agony of noise and the silence that followed.”

“A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding” is a fierce yet delicate story. Jackie Copleton’s characters are hauntingly real, her language achingly subtle. Another great work lauded by the Bailey’s Prize longlist.



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