The Things She Owned by Katherine Tamiko Arguile transports the reader between times, countries and cultures, in a beautiful story about grief, resilience and the legacy of what we leave behind.
Years after the death of her cruel and complicated mother, Erika is still surrounded by the things she left behind: an onigiri basket, a Wedgwood tea set, a knotted ring from Okinawa. Against her Japanese family’s wishes, and Japanese tradition, Erika has also kept the urn containing her mother’s ashes and bones, refusing to put Michiko’s memory to rest. She ignores her grief, throwing herself into her work as a chef at a high-end London restaurant. But when a cousin announces that she will be visiting from Japan, Erika’s resolve begins to crack.
Slowly the things Michiko owned reveal stories of her youth amid the upheaval of Tokyo during and after the Second World War. As the two women’s stories progress and entwine, Erika is drawn to Okinawa, the island of her ancestors. It’s a place of magic and mysticism where the secrets of Erika’s own past are waiting to be revealed.
Beautiful and mysterious, The Things She Owned explores the complexity of lives lived between cultures, the weight of cross-generational trauma, and a mother and daughter on a tortuous path to forgiveness.
I have a long history with Japan: I lived there for many years, I married a Japanese man and our children are proud of their Japanese heritage, so this book sang to me on so many levels. It’s also refreshing to read a story that humanises the war experience for Japanese civilians.
In a Q&A, author Katherine Tamiko Arguile says, “My mother was six years old on the ‘Night of Black Snow’, when bombs dropped by American B-29s obliterated a quarter of central Tokyo over the course of a single night in March 1945. While the leaders of Japan’s militaristic government ordered acts of atrocity overseas, Japanese civilians, especially children, suffered as civilians do everywhere when they are caught up in war.”
My mother-in-law was a child in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped, so much of what I read here felt familiar after knowing her stories. She now lies in a nursing home with radiation induced Parkinson’s, unable to speak. So the themes of multi-generational trauma in The Things She Owned hit hard. But you don’t need a connection like mine to love this beautifully written story. The themes of grief and loss and pain are universal.
The story unfolds over two generations against a backdrop of Second World War Tokyo, early-2000s London and the Japanese island of Okinawa. We alternate between Erika and her mother Michiko, and deep into the complicated legacy of their relationship.
Interspersed throughout are ‘the things she owned’… Michiko’s belongings that Erika now has, that act as a catalyst for Erika’s grief to finally emerge. I thought this was an excellent way to structure this story and enjoyed learning about these possessions: a tea service, a birth certificate, a fate binding ring, a water-tumbled stone, among others.
The Things She Owned is Katherine’s debut novel, and it is an exceptional one. It will linger with me for some time. Utterly wonderful.