I had heard about Julie Otsuka through the radio program Selected Shorts when a short story of hers was read out in a live performance. The story moved me so much that I took note of her name and decided to find out what else she had written.
When The Emperor Was Divine is Otsuka's first novel. Set during World War II in America, the novel tells the story of a Japanese family who were taken away to camps by the American government for the duration of the war.
The story is mainly told from the perspective of the young daughter and son, who remain nameless for the entire book. Otsuka's writing style is simultaneously poetic and unsentimental. The book is quite short, but long enough to make you care for these unnamed characters.
I guess for me personally what made this book such a great read was that it opened up to me a part of history I had never heard of before. The book is compelling as it draws you into the characters' lives.
The fact that it is mostly written from the perspective of the children makes it so moving, as they try to figure out why they have to move out of their suburban home to a camp in the desert wastelands.
Intermittent heavily censored letters from their father, who is suspected of being loyal to the emperor, also tug on the heart strings.
However, I must say I was completely mystified by the final chapter of the book. If you read it, let me know what you think. 4 out of 5 stars from me.