Review: The Gods of Heavenly Punishiment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Title: The Gods of Heavenly Punishment
Author: Jennifer Cody Epstein
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 384 (hardcover)
Published: March 2013
Source: from author for book tour and review
Rating: 4/5

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.

In this evocative and thrilling epic novel, 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.

"War makes monsters out of men." - Patrick Ness

Jennifer Cody Epstein has my full attention. I'd seen her books before around in the blogosphere, and after reading The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, I don't know how she stayed off my personal reading radar for so long. This book contains so much of what I love about reading good historical fiction - immense detail, obvious research and knowledge about the time being portrayed, evocative writing, and complex characters. The story within the pages is bleak, and fittingly so; the author captures so many horrible aspects of war so intimately it can make for hard reading. Despite, or maybe because, of the content, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is a worthwhile and must read for any fan of WWII fiction. A novel that will make you think, and one that will tug on your emotions, I was absolutely unable to put this book down until it all was said and done.

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is more of a series of pre-, during, and post-war vignettes featuring connected characters than a story with a straightforward and linear plot. The frame the author uses makes for a unique read, and like D.H. Lawrence's ubiquitous-in-the-novel Lady Chatterly's Lover, the love and complicated relationships between the six main characters are what binds the vignettes into a more cohesive story. The characters are an eclectic, varied bunch - from young Japanese girls, to American translators - they all have their individual style. As I was making my way through this dense and detailed read, what stood out to me was how real these characters seemed, how tangible their lives and emotions were to the reader. Even when knowing how dismal their lives were, Yoshi, and to a lesser extent, Billy and Lacy, made you care about them.

There is a lot to take away from Epstein's novel - the interconnectedness of lives, the different roles people will play in their lifetime, but mostly, it is about what war will do the people involved. Fathers become soldiers, or war criminals. Architects of houses become architects of destruction. The war is sprawling, far-reaching and changes the lives of all the characters depicted, from those in the US, to those in Japan. There is little honor and glory to be had  in the WWII that Epstein so deftly shows - even Cam, someone who would be labelled a hero on American shores, is culpable for the deaths of civilians. Kenji, Yoshi's (the main character insofar as there is on) father and a mild-mannered builder before the war, goes down a path that no one could have predicted. It is a bleak and uncompromising look at the horrors of war, and Epstein doesn't shy away from the harsh reality.

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment isn't an easy read, by any means. The individual threads pieced together to create a larger narrative make such an epic battle easily reduced to the real people involved. It's a book full of strife and struggle, war and heartbreak. It's honest. It's raw. It's beautiful. It made me think. National conflicts and personal lives are presented with talent, and Epstein is a writer capable of conveying multiple points of view with equal ease. Obviously researched, full of evocative writing, and rendered with care, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment leaves a long-lasting impression - one that will not fade even after the final page is read.

4 comments:

  1. (And women and children and everyone, Patrick Ness. But also a true quote.)

    See what I mean? Fantastic blurb-y first paragraph. I'm reading it now and I don't know what to comment on first. That I feel ashamed to not have seen that author around the blogosphere? That I agree with everything you wrote about reading good historical fiction? That maybe I haven't read or looked for this book because I dread that bleakness and war of any kind? Hard reading, yes. Do I doubt worthiness? definitely not. Also, have you ever wondered at the abundance of WWII fiction? Of all the historical moments, it seems like most people write about WWII or nineteenth century London the most....

    "A novel that will make you think, and one that will tug on your emotions, I was absolutely unable to put this book down until it all was said and done." <-- Also, I'm assuming, a novel you need to be in the right mood and frame of mind to read :O?

    "like D.H. Lawrence's ubiquitous-in-the-novel Lady Chatterly's Lover," <-- This is the point when I think, wow, I wish I read as much as Jessie so that I could understand her references. The only book I've read with vignettes put together is the House on Mango Street (I think, at least). Sounds like you had no trouble relating to the six main characters, though that would worry me in a novel of vignettes and that many MCs. I suppose that is the mark of good writing - that the characters felt so very real to you.

    "There is a lot to take away from Epstein's novel - the interconnectedness of lives, the different roles people will play in their lifetime, but mostly, it is about what war will do the people involved." <-- This sort of reminds me of Laini Taylor's Days of Blood and Starlight except I imagine this one works better within its framework to prove this point.

    "It's honest. It's raw. It's beautiful. It made me think. National conflicts and personal lives are presented with talent, and Epstein is a writer capable of conveying multiple points of view with equal ease. Obviously researched, full of evocative writing, and rendered with care, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment leaves a long-lasting impression - one that will not fade even after the final page is read." <-- Absolutely beautiful, Jessie. If I had any space in my reading schedule and I was in the mood to read a war book (sadly at 3:30 a.m., with my eyes barely open, I cannot make myself in the mood for that), I would buy this book ASAP because of your review.

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    1. As for LCL, you're not missing much! It's referenced/mentioned a lot in this book, but it's really not a must-read on its own. I just saw similarities between it and this book and wanted to comment on that.

      I actually thought about Taylor's DoBaS when reading this. They are similar thematically, and even though I do love Taylor's books, this one carries it off a bit better.

      I love hearing that my reviews make people want to read the book. And then I get nervous because what if they hate it and they blame me and think I am crazy for liking it. BUT I think you would find a lot to think about with this one.

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  2. Just dropping a note again to say that I'm TOTALLY adding this because of you. :)

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    Replies
    1. I would love to see what you make of it!

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