The subject of Jamie Ford’s novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an unjust piece of history well worth exploring. Narrated from the perspective of a young Chinese boy, Henry Lee, Ford writes about the Japanese internment camps that sprung up in America during World War II.
Henry is the only child of first generation Chinese parents. He is 12 when the novel begins and his father has decreed that he only speak English in the house. Using this as a tactic to improve Henry’s English makes sense. But his parents speak only Cantonese, English words are unintelligible to them and so Henry is locked out of his own family so that he can perfect “his American.” His father’s edict is fueled by the climate of fear that is palpable for Asian immigrants of any kind at the time but it makes his son’s home as uncomfortable as the world outside.
Henry’s parents are depicted as classic immigrants, afraid of the new country and yet determined to earn its rights for their children. Ford’s attempts to deepen the complexity of the Lees only serve to highlight the ways in which he has fallen upon the crutch of stereotype.
The novel depends on the strength of Henry’s relationship with Keiko, a Japanese-American who attends the same white school as he. They fortify each other against the racism of their environment, exploring Seattle side by side. Henry is forced to sport a button reading “I am Chinese” to deter some of the hatred directed his way, while Keiko does not speak a word of Japanese but is ostracized nonetheless. The source of the comfort they find in one another is obvious and with Keiko as a figure to defend Henry is able to act brave. The climate is uncomfortable for everyone and it is clear that things are going to get worse before they get better.
Ford also crafts what is meant to be a pivotal friendship between Henry and a black street side saxophone player, Sheldon. As a result Henry and then Keiko have a winning love for jazz. The search for a particular record fuels a substantial portion of the novel. But like the rest of the characters in Ford’s novel, Sheldon is a surface and his existence too convenient in a series of similarly facile events.
Ford’s narrative alternates between Henry’s blooming friendship with Keiko and the period more than 40 years later when he is recovering from his wife, Edith’s death. Keiko’s absence is painted with mystery, but the importance of her disappearance was hard to swallow despite all the author’s efforts. Part of this failure was due to do with the ages of Ford’s protagonists. The duo is on the cusp of 13. I am not immune to the possibility of true love at the age of 13 or 14, and certainly the atmosphere of war affects the maturity level of its children, but for all Henry’s dramatic gravity he never seems capable of the weighty emotions Ford bestows on him. Keiko and Henry cling to each other because they are both different in a sea of white and beyond that there is little recognition and appreciation of the other’s subtleties.
Ford’s recognition of the maltreatment of fellow Americans in World War II is finally eclipsed by the conveniences of the plot. His turns of phrase and conversation exchanges are so cliché they are amusing until one realizes they are meant in earnest. As much as I hoped to be won over by jazz and love at no point did I find myself rooting for the reunion of Keiko and Henry because I found it impossible to care.