Even without being a parent, I can imagine that a parent's greatest fear is of losing a child. Suzanne Kamata illustrates this fear with palpable intensity in her debut novel Losing Kei.
The novel opens in 1997 with main character Jill Parker watching her son from a distance on the playground only to have him whisked away by his grandmother, closing after only two short pages with the lines: "I have lost him again. I have lost my son Kei." The impact of the scene and those lines are what is best about Kamata's novel. Packed with mystery about what has happened to cause Jill to be separated from her son, to cause the grandmother to shield the boy from his mother as if she were a criminal or worse, are the bedrock on which Kamata has staked her foundation. Kamata exposes Japanese xenophobic custody laws, which, in the case of a "gaijin" marriage to a native, the child is almost always awarded to the Japanese parent. The scenes of Jill's loss and yearning are poignant and emotionally rich.
Beyond the initial scene of spying on her child like a voyeur, the novel Losing Kei charts the course of Jill Parker, an American artist, who tries to escape her broken heart in Japan, but finds it difficult to leave behind memories of her American ex-boyfriend. While working as a bar hostess, she falls in love with a Japanese man, Yusuke. They marry and a have a son, Kei, but the marriage and the life Jill believed she would have begins to unravel. Kamata generates suspense by interspersing chapters of Jill's back story, told in past tense, with the scenes from the "present" (1997). Though the fact of the separation and the inevitable end of Jill's marriage to Yusuke are revealed early, the reasons are the story the novel slowly unspools.
In one scene, Jill stakes out the home that she had shared with Kei's father and grandmother; once everyone has gone to sleep, she invades the home, like a stalker or a detective. Present tense and facility with language drive these scenes hard with ever-increasing momentum demonstrating why Kamata has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize five times. Her sparse prose and deft touch with language are what best recommend Kamata as a writer. The rhythms of lean prose trimmed of fat and short scenes finely honed for maximum impact make the novel a fast and powerful read.
Kamata is also at her best when she details the landscape of Jill's world, Japan, a world Kamata knows from her own experience. Though born and raised in Michigan, she moved to Japan many years ago to teach English and married a Japanese man; today, they are raising twin children - a brother and a sister - in rural Tokushima. Knowing the world of Japan as she does from the perspective of an American trying to fit in to a culture that sees her at best as a visitor and at worst as an outsider or interloper, Kamata has an exacting eye for the precise details that will best underpin her story. The novel may have benefitted from more of these details of Japan, more of Jill Parker's odd role as stranger in a strange land. Because these are the novel's strength too much spent away from them seems to weaken the story's overall impact and its plot development toward a satisfying ending. what Kamata does include is well wrought but more may have been better.
In the end, Losing Kei is about more than a mother's separation from her son, it's a journey of self-discovery and personal growth for a woman living as an expatriate, trying to find her way in a culture that is often dismissive if not hostile to others. Though comparisons to Lost in Translation and Kramer vs. Kramer are misleading at best, the novel Kamata has written is well worth a reader's time. Beautifully packaged by Leapfrog Press, Losing Kei is a gem.