The Electrical Field (Knopf Canada, 320 pages, $29.95 cloth), by Kerri Sakamoto, is an exceptional novel by an exceptional writer, another example of the quality readers of new Canadian fiction have come to expect from Knopf. Joy Kogawa, author of the acclaimed Obasan (1981), calls the book "a haunting, harrowing tale that illustrates, more powerfully than mere polemics, the ravages of history on hearts and lives." I agree, except that I would argue that Sakamoto, whose book will undoubtedly elicit comparisons with Kogawa's own, goes beyond a condemnation of historical events. What Sakamoto has written is an intense, psychologically complex novel that startles us with its uncanny insight into the relationship between the private self and its environment, both physical and political.
Asako Saito is a middle-aged Canadian-born woman of Japanese descent. As a child, she, along with her family, suffered the injustice and humiliation of forced confinement in a camp for "enemy aliens" during the Second World War. When the novel opens, she is still living in the small rural Ontario community where she has spent the past twenty years. Her mother and older brother, Eiji, are both dead, and she divides her time between taking care of her bedridden father and her thirty-three-year-old "little" brother, Stum, who seems finally ready to strike out on his own after a lifetime of dependence on her.
Asako, sexually repressed and inexperienced, is obsessed with the memory of Eiji, whom she idolized. When he died, she was only fourteen, and his death not only numbed her emotionally and arrested her psychological development, but seems to have "frozen" her whole life-a life that has become one of quiet desperation predicated on routine. Her strict adherence to pattern is the only way Asako can exert control, stave off her growing fear of being left alone. Asako sees herself as a passive observer, a "receptacle for others' impulses and confidences". Any value she perceives herself as having is conferred by others and is based solely on her role as an acquiescent care-giver. What she is about to find out as the novel opens, is how non-passive she actually is, and has been all along.
Asako's days of superficially even-keeled domesticity come to an abrupt end when one of her neighbours, the beautiful Chisako Yano, is found murdered alongside her lover in a local park. Since Chisako's volatile, politically active husband, Masashi, and their two children disappear on the day of the murder, he is the prime suspect.
What draws Asako deeply into this drama is her relationship with Sachi, a young girl who lives nearby and is the daughter of the third Japanese family in the neighbourhood. Sachi's passion for Chisako's son Tam echoes Asako's feelings for Eiji; Sachi's grief and pain and longing, the power of her youth, evoke in Asako memories long buried. In a sense, by "mothering" Sachi, she is mothering her own traumatized child self.
And then, of course, there is Asako's own involvement with the Yanos-fraught with conflicting emotions and ambivalence. Asako is largely motivated by feelings she refuses to acknowledge: pride, jealousy, spite, sexual attraction. She envies Chisako her beauty, her aristocratic background, her family, her job, her lover, her life experience. As for Masashi, she convinces herself that he is repulsive both physically and politically: "All he does is talk about the war and the camps" when everyone else just wants to "forget".
Asako herself certainly wants to forget-many things. However, as Sakamoto so eloquently illustrates, wanting to forget isn't quite the same as forgetting, and eventually, when remembrance does erupt, it is often with large and unpredictable consequences. In Asako's case, the most significant of these is her recognition of her own part in the play, so to speak; her culpability for her own life and her inevitable connection-no matter how much she wants to avoid it-to the lives of others.
There is no such thing, in other words, as a passive observer. Like the recurring image of the electrical field that dominates the book, our unaddressed "secrets" loom over our psychological landscape-constant, dangerous, and highly charged.
Sakamoto doesn't resort to dogma, steers clear of accusations, recriminations, obvious "truths". In the end, it's not governments, bombs, wars, the enormous forces of history that are entirely to blame, no matter how easy it is to blame them. It's our individual selves-coloured by greed (in the case of Asako, for attention and love), insecurity, and hubris-that either win or lose, succumb or survive. To say "I admit it" is often difficult but deeply liberating. To go even further and say "I admit it, and here is truth behind what I'm admitting" is even harder. But, no matter into what historical period we are born, the power is, ultimately, ours.