War creates many exiles in the heartbreaking new novel by Kiana Davenport, the critically acclaimed author of the multigenerational saga of Hawaiian history, geography, and culture Shark Dialogues. Davenport again sets her book in Hawaii, then follows a diverse and captivating cast of characters across the globe through events determined by World War II and its aftermath. From Honolulu to New Orleans, Paris to New Britain, Shanghai to Kowloon, Song of the Exile features rich locations as varied and ultimately as haunted as its characters. Each of the central characters the brilliant jazz musician Keo and the flawlessly beautiful love of his life, Sunny; the reluctant but brave soldier Krash and his own defiantly self-possessed lover, Malia struggles to come to terms with the impositions of both war and colonization: a loss of entitlement, of free will, of dignity. The concept of "exile" takes on several meanings, however, with hunger for belonging and for community weighed against hunger for bodily sustenance and for sanity in the most harrowing moments captured here. In Davenport's rich tapestry of myth and history, of the political and domestic spheres, of brutal desire and rare moments of exquisite joy, the final song played is, if not entirely triumphant, then at last and completely transcendent.
The most cruelly exiled characters in this image-laden novel are the women enslaved by the Japanese in their rampage across the Pacific. Davenport's project is openly political. Sunny, daughter of the Hawaiian native, Butterfly, and the Koreandoctor,Samchock Sung, represents a composite character of all the "comfort women" that Japanese soldiers brutalized during the war. Raped as many as 80 times a day, most of these women were murdered when losing the war became inevitable. In the feminist tradition of reclaiming stories lost to a largely male-authored history handed down in textbooks and documentaries, war records, and even novels, Davenport brings to light the nearly indescribable horror these women suffered. She's done her homework well. In driving prose that conveys to the last detail the nightmare existence thrust upon these women, Davenport never loses track of the ways subjugation bonds victims together while also causing them to turn on each other.
In interviews, Davenport reports that some of the women who survived this sexual enslavement live on today in anonymity, still frightened of showing their faces even to a listener as sympathetic as Davenport. To these women she dedicates Song of the Exile. Their story remains at its heart, making the difference between this novel and a number of other recent works addressing World War II.
War creates strange lovers and renders home a dream never within reach. Those are the constant themes Song of the Exile shares with the recent American release of Penelope Fitzgerald's Human Voices. Set in London during the air raids and loosely based on Fitzgerald's own experiences working for the BBC, Human Voices chronicles the mystery and intimacy of the desperation and pluck of people under siege. A love affair also ignites the events of the recent Oprah-backed bestseller set in Nazi Germany, The Reader, by German author Bernhard Schlink. Charlotte Gray, by Sebastian Faulks, maps romantic devotion and moral anguish in a story that opens in London with a dramatic rescue of a downed pilot and culminates in Vichy France.
Of these books, Song of the Exile. is unique because it addresses a truly new arena of the war. Against the backdrop of Sunny's capture, we follow Keo from his early days learning piano and trumpet in Hawaii to his wandering through Louisiana with his fellow jazzmen, most of whom are African American. Racism and ostracism dog Keo's every move, even into Paris, where the Nazis love him for his soulful sound by night and hate him for his Hawaiian skin by day. But Keo is no one's patsy. Despite his small stature, he fights back, maintaining an unbowed spirit through internment in a concentration camp and, after the war, letting it fuel his desperate love for Sunny long after her disappearance.
Powered by a strong investment in the unvoiced experiences of Asian women subjugated by the Japanese and the Hawaiians who gave themselves to their country unquestionably, Kiana Davenport makes literary history in Song of the Exile. To absorb this lyricism of this book is also to learn the pidgin language of Hawaii's people and to fall in love with the beautiful land and traditions that make their islands sacred.