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Tuesday, May 11, 1999

Coming of age, piece by piece

NAMAKO: Sea Cucumber, by Linda Watanabe McFerrin. Coffee House Press, 1998, 256 pp., $14.95 (paper).

Like the sea cucumber, Ellen, the multicultural 9-year-old narrator of Linda Watanabe McFerrin's delightful first novel, cannot be easily classified. Animal or vegetable? Living and feeling, or merely alive? Looking at one of these specimens, Ellen laments, "It must be horrible to be so strange that nobody knows what you really are."

The eldest of four lively children of a Scottish father and a half-American, half-Japanese mother, Ellen finds her own strangeness magnified when her family leaves America to travel to Japan to care for Hanabe, the ailing grandmother Ellen has never met.

Ellen is sent to Tokyo to live with the begrudging Hanabe. Torn between cultures and worlds in a place whose language she does not know, she is forced by the shock of displacement to call her own identity into question.

It isn't enough that Ellen falls into that awkward teenage gap between girlhood and womanhood, trying to fit in and struggling to become an individual. She also has the added burdens of cultural, generational and familial conflict to deal with, since her mother Sara is estranged from her own mother, Hanabe.

And when her father, Scott, buys a house in northern Japan, Ellen discovers his "secret" -- an affair that leads her to suspect the trip has been designed to save her parents' marriage. But what about saving her own life?

When Ellen and her grandmother join the family up north, she and her siblings struggle to "fit in" to the culture and with the other neighborhood expatriate misfits.

The book's quietly lyrical tone evokes the pain of adolescence and the awkward humor of growing up "different" while wanting to be "good." A scene of the children eating a Japanese sweet at their grandmother's house rings hilariously true.

"I bit gingerly into mine, not wanting to crush the artfully sculpted design all at once, expecting the comforting taste that I thought was universal. I looked immediately at Samuel and Gray, who had both taken enormous bites, their smiles frozen on clenched jaws, while the maid nodded and smiled, the sickening taste of sweet bean paste filling their mouths. That we got through that first bite was a testament to Sara's rigorous training, though I watched Gray's mouth open wide twice, lined with red bean, until Sara's cold stare made him close it."

Truth and deception, reality and appearance send Ellen spinning, but she eventually finds balance. She meets an art teacher who encourages her painting, forges a bond with her grandmother who introduces her to the liminal world of fairy tales, spirits, gods and ghost stories, and recognizes the saving grace of creation -- myth, art, connection and, finally, self.

Yet it isn't until she and her mother Sara visit the ancestral home that Ellen begins to see her own future by acknowledging the family's past, the land they came from and its rich history. With the death of her grandmother, Ellen integrates the Japanese "spirit" into her own life and becomes a young woman full of hope and of appreciation for her varied histories.

The author, winner of the 1997 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for fiction, has a great talent for capturing adolescent emotions in scenes and images shot through with an elegiac tenderness. There are some unfortunate, though slight, Japanese errors, such as Rappongi instead of Roppongi, and "kitori senco" (mosquito coils) instead of "katori senko," etc.

At times the book can be slow going, such as when ghost stories like the well-known "Yotsuya Kaidan" or legends like that of the sun goddess Amaterasu take up large portions of the narration without resonating as deeply as they could. Still, the interweaving of these tales reflects Ellen's own journey to balance trust and disbelief, forming a multilayered tableau mixing myth and reality, light and dark.

"Namako" is a charming debut by a writer to watch. The spunky, searching, adolescent narrator will certainly speak to many young readers who find themselves bridging more than one culture, and to older readers who have gone through the process of becoming adult, becoming whole.

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