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Sunday, Sep. 16, 2012

Charming short stories about man's tarnished imperfections


The Beautiful One Has Come, by Susan Kamata. Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, 2011, 212 pp., $15.00, (paperback)

Long-term Japan resident and writer Suzanne Kamata juxtaposes the charming and the unappealing in an understated elucidation of flawed humanity with her collection of short stories, "The Beautiful One Has Come."

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As Kamata cleverly reveals with her restrained prose, humanity possesses a wabi sabi charm, a tarnished imperfection that nevertheless gleams with muted beauty.

In "Havana," the opening piece, Kamata softly reveals this dichotomy of human nature. Alicia, a young American, journeys to Cuba to visit her former college roommate, a Japanese woman living overseas while her husband works as a guard for the Japanese Embassy.

Under Kamata's masterful characterization, Alicia emerges as a subtle racist, convinced she sympathizes with the Cuban hired hand even as she ignores his requests with casual insensitivity. Somehow the reader still empathizes with Alicia. Her idealism alongside youthful superiority resonate authentically, and her final humiliation neither satisfies nor instructs. It is only a tangled mix of the gorgeous and the gauche.

Many of the stories etch out similar characters — humans unaware of their own contradictions, struggling to make sense of new circumstances or emotions, painfully beautiful in their fallibilities. Kamata's male characters swell with comparable contradictions — the Hawaiian teacher and dancer grappling to find a place in the strict, rural world of his Japanese lover, and the fathers, husbands and lovers of many female narrators. Kamata uses the male perspective only once, in "The Naming." Her signature dichotomy of character manifests itself in a Japanese baseball coach, who is torn between two families: his 0-19 team and his struggle for the lives of prematurely newborn twins.

Although "Beauty" shimmers within many characters, there are no heroes, just people. "Woman Blossoming" exposes the calculated gamble of an artist's widow, equal parts repulsive and admiring. "You're So Lucky" twists your sympathies and contradicts expectations as a first-time mother also deals with twins born too early, and thus faces the capricious uncertainty of life. "Driving" reverses loyalties. The stereotypical Japanese domineering mother-in-law finds freedom and escape by testing for a driver's license, while the foreign-wife narrator can only complain and deride.

The last two stories, "Bonding for Beginners" and "Between," again twist common ex-pat experiences into quiet lessons on humanity. Repeating characters, contained within these repeating themes, add to the sense of the real within the imagined.

Kamata's stories travel throughout the world, each somehow connecting back to Japan. From Cuba to a tragic honeymoon in Egypt and ex-pat Japanese artists in Paris to neonatal intensive care units in rural Japan — the stories include a variety of humanity, struggling against everyday tragedy toward triumph.

One favorite, "The Rain in Katoomba," slightly shifts perspective as an 80-year-old grandmother remembers her youthful relationship with an Australian in Katoomba before the ugliness of war separates their beautifully tender first love.

Children with disabilities, from cerebral palsy to deafness, also work their way into the collection, as grace among hardship, the quiet beauty gleaned from the tarnished, adds poignant weight to Kamata's themes.

As the winner of the Indie Book Next Generation Award, Kamata's cross-cultural examination of our shared humanity has recently garnered deserved praise. Consider our winsome shortcomings and celebrate our shared imperfections with Kamata's quietly gorgeous collection, "The Beautiful One Has Come."



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