The Ocean in the Closet
By Yuko Taniguchi
Coffee House Press
Reviewed by Nancy L. Horner
The entire time she spoke, she faced the floor as her body shook. Father just looked down at her and told her to pull herself together and that he expected breakfast at seven as usual tomorrow, then went back to her library. Mother, still facing the floor, began to cry. Perhaps it would have been better if Father went to her and slapped her face, but his life with or without Mother was manageable, as long as the breakfast was served at seven as he expected. If one’s existence or absence does not matter in the slightest, one lives with the deepest sorrow, which was what I saw in my mother’s eyes.
The Ocean in the Closet is a lovely little gem of a book, a tale of pain, tragedy and healing. Told from alternating points of view, the story shifts back and forth between the thoughts and experiences of 9-year-old Helen Johnson in California and her mother’s aging uncle, Hideo Takagawa in Japan.
Helen and Ken are brother and sister, living in the San Francisco area. Their part-Japanese mother Anna is jittery, obsessive, and going to pieces from depression; their father has been distant since his return from Vietnam. Anna routinely locks the children in the closet for the slightest infractions and the children don’t understand their mother’s behavior but they love her and hope someday she’ll improve.
The story takes place from May of 1975 to April, 1976 and there’s much, much more to it than just a dysfunctional couple and their suffering children. Most of the characters’ lives have, in some way, been touched by war. When Anna has a nervous breakdown, Helen writes to her mother’s uncle in Japan in the hope that learning about her mother’s past will enable Helen to somehow help her mother recover.
Uncle Hideo and his wife, Chiyo, are survivors of the devastation of World War II and only Uncle Hideo can shed light on Anna’s tumultuous early years, her mother Ume’s death and the time between Ume’s death and Anna’s adoption. Hideo and Chiyo invite Helen and her Uncle Steve to visit them in Japan. What takes place is a startling and beautiful tale of healing and forgiveness.
When I began reading, I had difficulty warming up to the characters and understanding their relationships. The beginning of The Ocean in the Closet seemed to forebode a bitter tale and each character does indeed have a painful past. Yet, it’s an amazing, uplifting story about how one person’s decision to reach out can begin the healing process for many.
The simplicity of Helen’s language takes some getting used to, but is more realistic than average. So many young children are portrayed as little geniuses. Helen is an ordinary child, but one with a big heart. Her Aunt Mary and Uncle Steve are lovely characters who exemplify the positive influence of people who are willing to step in when help is needed and who offer the comfort of normality and a pure and non-judgmental love.
Hideo and Chiyo’s war experiences offer a particularly fascinating view of World War II from the Japanese perspective. Both Hideo and Chiyo lived through a tremendous amount of horror, but survived their experiences and grew, perhaps into kinder and gentler souls. The Ocean in the Closet is a quiet, uplifting, beautiful little book, highly recommended.
Coffee House Press