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Sunday, Feb. 22, 2004

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

A second generation apart


By A.M. COHEN
INVISIBLE GARDENS, by Julie Shigekuni. St. Martin's Press, 2003, $23.95 (cloth).

Lily Soto Quinn is starting to have an affair. At the first sexual encounter, she ponders the significance of her lover's body: "Part of him so clearly missing. A gap between his kneecap and the ground, filled with nothing but air." To Lily, her lover's missing leg, lost in a motorcycle accident, represents what she finds missing in her life.

Julie Shigekuni's "Invisible Gardens" follows the self-discovery of a Japanese-American woman whose life should be happy on all scores. Her American husband, Joseph, a public health pathologist, is a success. The couple have a splendid home in New Mexico, two fine children, and Lily has respectable work teaching history at a college.

Yet so much is missing: the romance, the freedom and the spontaneity that she enjoyed with Joseph when they were in New York -- before gentrification, separate careers and family.

Her life routine is first disrupted by her demented father, who, unable to care for himself, is brought to live with her family. Once, her father's work and passion -- botany -- had an influence on her, but as he cuts down two of her favorite garden trees, Lily realizes that he now takes away, rather than adds to her experiences.

His presence makes her recollect her mother, who at 49 was killed in an auto accident. The memories provoke her to confront her own identity. Although established as a nisei -- second-generation American of Japanese origin -- Shigekuni's details of Lily's nisei experiences are rather conventional. Both Lily and her midlife crisis seem to be American as apple pie. When her affair with Perish becomes known to her husband and Perish's wife, the lovers flee to New York for a tryst of only a few hours before returning to New Mexico. It is this flight to Lily's American past that becomes the peak of her affair.

Possessive, persistent and good in bed, Perish -- in contrast to Lily's husband whose job of performing daily autopsies leaves him smelling of death each night -- represents life: all the more so by being physically incomplete. It is Perish's background, however, that adds weight to Shigekuni's novel, which otherwise would be little more than a nice example of creative writing.

He, too, is Japanese-American, born in an internment camp and named after Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the naval officer and diplomat who negotiated U.S. trade with Japan in 1854. Thus, the novel suggests that there may be a certain affinity between Japanese-Americans. The basis of that affinity, at least for Lily and Perish, seems to be family relationships influenced by traditional Japanese ways, the internment and the postrelease-restart experience.

Conventional relations between nisei and "100 percent" Americans are not, however, derided: At the end of the novel, Lily returns to her family, but she tells her husband that for 12 years a vision of her mother had never left her. Adding her father to the household was a re-engagement with her Japanese ancestry: So too was her affair with Perish.



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