Monday, June 19, 2017

Leslie Shimotakahara's After the Bloom, a thoughtful novel about the Japanese internment camps and their aftermath

In her contemplative first novel, Shimotakahara explores the long-lasting aftereffects of a disgraceful historical episode: the incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry during WWII. As she explains in an introduction, Lily Takemitsu is partly based on her paternal grandmother, who denied this part of her past.

In Toronto in 1984, Lily’s daughter Rita, a high-school art teacher and single mother, panics when she learns Lily has vanished. Her mother has the tendency to wander, but she’s never gone missing for days before. As Rita pursues leads to Lily’s whereabouts, she uncovers fragments of her hidden family history, including secrets about her father, Kaz, who she never met, and the time he and Lily spent in a place where “the sand blew so fiercely that stepping outside was like standing under a shower of pinpricks.”

The novel devotes equal time to Lily, a young woman once runner-up in the Cherry Blossom Pageant, who has been forced from one troubled living situation into another. The author paints a meticulous portrait of the dreary geography and fiery internal politics at the camp at Matanzas in California in the 1940s. Rescued by a rebellious photographer named Kaz after a fainting spell, Lily gets drawn into the ongoing animosity between Kaz and his father, the camp doctor.

Awareness of this novel’s topic is necessary for anyone living in today’s world. After the Bloom presents an affecting inside view of what Japanese-Americans endured, both within the camps and afterward. Indecisive and easily manipulated, Lily is an atypical heroine. While she loves her mother, Rita also feels frustrated by her silences and eccentricities. However, Lily’s character feels real, and her disconnections from reality are understood in the context of what she’s survived. Slow-moving at first, the story gains momentum as it continues, and the conclusion is especially satisfying.

After the Bloom was published by Canada's Dundurn Press last month (pb, 328pp).  This review also appears in May's Historical Novels Review and is based on my reading of a NetGalley copy.


  1. I've been following your blog for a few months now and this is one of the best posts. I enjoy learning about Asian history and enjoy books like this. A few years ago I read a book called Farewell to Manzanar and it was a memoir of a girl who was taken to one of those Japanese-American camps. It was also a true story. Farewell to Manzanar, although a similar book, was not that entertaining. One thing I does stand out about the book is the fact that the main character's Mother had to sell a lot of their possessions before moving to the camps.
    If your interested in Asian fiction or history/news related to Asia you can try out the following websites:
    (this blog mostly talks about monarchies and features both monarchs across the world)
    (features both asian stuff and stuff from other countries.)
    (features asian themed genres)
    (features news, books, shows, and movies regarding Asia)
    (this one just started this year).

    It's a shame that our schools often skim over our world's history rather than really teaching it. When I was in school, the briefly mentioned Japanese internment camps, but they did not teach us the details. History is not the bland subject that are schools make it. It is really interesting if it is taught from different points of view in a way that is interactive. Our schools focus solely on memorizing facts rather than teaching us to remember it and relate it to our present. History classes are not there just to teach history, they are there to teach patriotism. If someone wants to learn real history, the can't rely on schools.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments and for all of the links to blogs related to Asia. I'll check them all out. I'm also pleased you liked this post. The fictional camp Matanzas in the novel is based on Manzanar. I'd heard of the memoir before but haven't read it myself.

      I don't recall learning about the Japanese internment camps in school. We really didn't learn much of anything about history's impact on daily life in history class - it was all famous names, dates, battles, and strategies, and memorization wasn't my thing, so it wasn't a topic I really excelled at. I gained more appreciation of history later on, through reading fiction, biographies, and memoirs.