Book Review: The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein
A lush, exquisitely rendered meditation on war, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment tells the story of several families, American and Japanese, their loves and infidelities, their dreams and losses, and how they are all connected by one of the most devastating acts of war in human history.
Fifteen-year-old Yoshi Kobayashi, child of Japan’s New Empire, daughter of an ardent expansionist and a mother with a haunting past, is on her way home on a March night when American bombers shower her city with napalm—an attack that leaves one hundred thousand dead within hours and half the city in ashen ruins. In the days that follow, Yoshi’s old life will blur beyond recognition, leading her to a new world marked by destruction and shaped by those considered the enemy: Cam, a downed bomber pilot taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army; Anton, a gifted architect who helped modernize Tokyo’s prewar skyline but is now charged with destroying it; and Billy, an Occupation soldier who arrives in the blackened city with a dark secret of his own. Directly or indirectly, each will shape Yoshi’s journey as she seeks safety, love, and redemption.
W.W. Norton & Company | March 11, 2013 | 382 pages (hardcover)
Jennifer Cody Epstein's The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is a beautifully written, heart-breaking yet ultimately satisfying novel set in both America and Japan in the mid-20th century. Although told from the perspectives of several different characters, both American and Japanese, the story revolves primarily around Yoshi Kobayashi, a young Japanese girl whose narrative, in one way or another, touches upon those of the novel's other principal characters. While the narrative of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment spans several decades, it is each of the characters experiences during WWII that are at the heart of this book.
The Gods of Heavenly Punishment has many strengths, not the least of which is well-drawn and sympathetic characters. The characters in this novel felt very real to me and, as a result, I was fully immersed in their story lines and cared about their fates. Yoshi, who provides readers with a glimpse of life in Tokyo before, during and after WWII, experiences firsthand one of WWII's most horrific events: the March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo. Epstein, through her often eloquent prose, effectively captures and conveys the horrors of that event and its aftermath. Downed Army pilot Cam Richards, who was involved in an earlier air raid against Japan but whose plane never made it back to safety, showcases the horrible treatment of American prisoners of war by Japanese forces. Cam's wife Lacy, who knows only that her husband is missing in action, illustrates the uncertainties and fears of those left at home. My heart broke for Yoshi, Cam and Lacy and all they had to endure.
Another of this novel's strengths was that it focuses on WWII in the Pacific theatre. While I'm quite familiar with the events of WWII, my knowledge is limited primarily to the European theatre. The Gods of Heavenly Punishment was able to highlight for me some of the seminal events of the war in the Pacific, and the impact they had on the people who lived through them -- both solider and civilian, American and Japanese.
I highly recommend The Gods of Heavenly Punishment to all readers of historical fiction, especially those interested in WWII and Japanese history.
Note: I received a copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.
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About the Author
Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Self, Mademoiselle and NBC, and has worked in Hong Kong, Japan and Bangkok, Thailand. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, two daughters and especially needy Springer Spaniel.