Novel plays on military life overseas then, now

Austin novelist Sarah Bird’s new book is entitled, “Above the East China Sea.” Photo by Filipa Rodrigues
Austin novelist Sarah Bird’s new book is entitled, “Above the East China Sea.” Photo by Filipa Rodrigues

Novel plays on military life overseas then, now

by: Anthony Marra | .
San Francisco Chronicle | .
published: June 25, 2014

On the first pages of “Above the East China Sea,” Sarah Bird’s ninth novel (Alfred A. Knopf; 320 pages; $25.95), a ghost of a World War II civilian haunts an Okinawan cave.

Luz, the second narrator in this entwined tale, is trapped in a different kind of purgatory: high school. She’s a military brat at the modern-day Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, where her mother captains the base police. Imagine if Darth Vader’s life motto was “Get ‘er done,” and you begin to get a sense of Luz’s mother, and why Luz is contemplating leaping off a cliff when we first encounter her. The normal ruts of adolescence deepen to chasms when her older sister, Codie, enlists in the Air Force. It’s a betrayal of everything the two sisters hold dear, namely the hope that they’ll turn out nothing like their mother. When Codie is killed in Afghanistan, Luz’s chasms sink into black holes.

The relationship between Luz and Codie is rendered with realism and heartbreak. Growing up on a series of military bases, where “home” is a concept relegated to civilian usage, the two sisters become the only line of support and continuity in each other’s lives. Underlying love sears through the veneer of everyday sibling rivalries and resentments.

But what makes the relationship between the two sisters feel so honest is the fact that each assumes the other will be always be there to hurt, protect and forgive. Being taken for granted is perhaps the ultimate proof of one’s centrality to another person’s life.

Luz only realizes that Codie was everything when Codie is nothing.

Physically and emotionally marooned on Okinawa, Luz decides to drown herself after partying on the beach with friends. But a sea turtle, which she takes as a sign from Codie, glides past her in the water. It gets stranger. She washes up in a cave where an emaciated teenage girl clothed in “a few dingy scraps of what was once a school uniform” begs Luz to save her child. But a few moments later, the girl is no more than a human skeleton. So begins Luz’s quest to uncover her identity.

Luz’s story line is intercut with that of Tamiko, a teenage girl who has the historical misfortune of living in 1945 Okinawa, on the eve of the American invasion. Tamiko is sent to Naha, the capital, to look after a sister whose unshakeable faith in the invincibility of Japan is converted from political asset to reckless hubris as U.S. warships approach.

Bird is a wise and sensitive writer, and in her hands the relationships of these two sets of sisters remain variegated, even as their parallel tracks narrow toward intersection.

However, Tamiko’s story is told by her ghost – the same one Luz encountered in the cave. Bird assiduously describes the importance of spirits, or kami, to Okinawans. Even so, readers in the land of th e living may be unwilling to cross over into the spirit world. Particularly because the otherwise light-footed prose straps on a pair of cement boots as it wades into the great beyond. The regional dialect of the afterlife is stilted and overwrought compared with the firecracker dialogue of her contemporary characters (“I shall be ready and will release the arrow of my yearning straight into his heart,” Tamiko’s ghost tells us early on).

But if you push through these early sections, you’re well rewarded with a stunning account of wartime Okinawa, which was both a colony of Japan and its front line. In her acknowledgements, Bird says she consulted hundreds of sources. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s rounding down. Everything from the local educational system, to the fatalistic ideology of the imperial cult, to the social signifiers encoded in a prostitute’s kimono, are integrated into Tamiko’s narration to create a visceral rendering of a society buckling between the exigencies of obligation and the realities of deprivation.

There are moments of the surreal, too. A solider takes the red dot of the Lucky Strikes logo as proof of the indomitability of the rising sun. Another character takes a bite of Spam in a U.S. detention camp, assuming it’s a slow-acting poison by which she can commit suicide.

Childhood in the modern U.S. military is researched and conveyed with equal depth and care. Luz and her friends freely insult each other’s ancestry because they live in a culture where their parents’ rank, rather than race or class, is the primary source of social friction. They speak in acronyms and abbreviations as if taxed by the syllable, and hearing military-speak from the mouths of babes is as endearing as it is saddening.

Their lives are shaped by shifting geopolitics as much as by changing hormones, and beneath the carapace of adolescent cynicism churns uncertainties few of their contemporaries back home have to face.

This narrative connects to the one set six decades earlier by physical and spiritual geography, but even more so by the moral power of Bird’s argument that the stories of those who have no say in the wars their countries wage in their names might be the most necessary to tell.

Anthony Marra’ debut novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” was long-listed for the 2013 National Book Award.