Title: Picking Bones from Ash
Author: Marie Matsuki Mockett
Synopsis (Courtesy of IndieBound): “Ghosts lurk in the bamboo forest outside the tiny northern Japanese town where Satomi lives with her elusive mother, Atsuko. A preternaturally gifted pianist, Satomi wrestles with inner demons. Her fall from grace is echoed in the life of her daughter, Rumi, who unleashes a ghost she must chase from foggy San Francisco to a Buddhist temple atop Japan’s icy Mount Doom. In sharp, lush prose, Picking Bones from Ash examines the power and limitations of female talent in our globalized world.”
Thoughts: Picking Bones from Ash is one of those subtle stories that has more depth than a reader initially realizes. Not just a ghost story, this is ultimately a story about family – what brings one together and what tears one apart. For those unfamiliar with Japan and their culture, Ms. Mockett introduces the reader to the intricacies of Japanese families, the beauty of its geography, and the grandeur of its religious sites while bridging the gap between East and West with a story that resonates no matter who is reading it.
Told in three distinct sections, the strongest of these belongs to Satomi as a young girl. As a girl who is desperately seeking love and acceptance by her mother, whose main goal is to see her daughter succeed, the reader’s heart goes out to this conflicted narrator as she struggles to determine whether her fate lies with piano or elsewhere.
My mother always told me that there is only one way a woman can be truly safe in this world. And that is to be fiercely, inarguably, and masterfully talented. (pg. 3)
Love through talent – this drive on the part of Atsuko can resonate with readers who have been pushed down career paths or into after-school activities that they may not want in an effort to live up to their parents’ expectations. Satomi’s plight takes on greater resonance when she experiences life in the West and the pull of another way of life.
Rumi’s story, as she unravels bits of her past, is not quite as compelling. Her relationship with her father is not as angst-filled or torturous, and Rumi is not as spirited or as willing to defy tradition and her family as her mother was. This makes for a less intriguing narrator. The Gothic feel of this section is a bit jarring as well, as it is out of place from the rest of the novel.
The two sections come together quite nicely during the denouement, as the reader understands the symbolism behind Satomi’s and Rumi’s stories. As they come together and meet face-to-face, the reader gets a clearer picture of the complexities of the Japanese culture and how the two main religions have created this unique landscape. More importantly, the reader gets the chance to delve into the ideas behind parenthood and the sacrifices that being a parent may or may not entail. Atsuko is quite a different mother than Satomi, but is either one right or wrong? Ultimately, it is up to the reader to decide.
Picking Bones from Ash was a great introduction to the nuances and beliefs behind the Japanese culture. Satomi is a strong character, and her problems finding her path in her world resonates well with the reader. The rest of the cast is not quite as strong, and the story itself loses steam as Ms. Mockett deviates from Satomi’s quest. Thankfully, the stunning descriptions and flawless prose balance these minor concerns, and the overall story is one that is poignant in its simplicity but lingers like a fine wine upon one’s palate. For a reader who is looking for a way to broaden his or her horizons and become acquainted with another culture without straying too far from the familiar, Picking Bones from Ash is a great novel to accomplish this.