This review originally appeared in the March 2002 edition of Multicultural Review.
Thompson excels in her first novel at making Japan, from the volcanic-ash strewn streets of Kagoshima to the temples around Kyoto, accessible while conveying her protagonist’s “rootless expatriate world.”
Caitlin Ober, though, is unlike other foreigners. She is an American who returns to Japan 15 years after a traumatizing childhood experience in Kyoto, where her family lived while her father, a scholar, did research. She now teaches English in Kagoshima, but her real mission is to overcome the guilt, sadness and silence that surrounds events from when she was 8. This drama leads to some of the most affecting passages in the novel, especially when Caitlin is reunited in Kyoto with her “number-two family,” the family of her best friend from childhood. The novel is less effective, though, when the narrator, like Caitlin, withholds for many pages a clear explanation of what happened in the past.
Nonetheless, Thompson’s straightforward narrative allows her to map out many fascinating aspects of Japanese life, such as the problems faced by a 14-year-old girl with a Japanese mother and an American father. The teen is bullied at schools and must choose between taking Japanese or American citizenship when she turns 20.
Though the novel, at times, veers toward melodrama, and more could be said about the biracial’s teens problems, instead of having her resolution subsumed by Caitlin’s drama, “Ash” successfully shows a Japan through Western eyes that isn’t the exotic locale of samurai and geisha but a place where an American can have powerful, emotional connections.