Lily Takemitsu goes missing from her home in Toronto one luminous summer morning in the mid-1980s. Her daughter, Rita, knows her mother has a history of dissociation and memory problems, which have led her to wander off before. But never has she stayed away so long. Unconvinced the police are taking the case seriously, Rita begins to carry out her own investigation. In the course of searching for her mom, she is forced to confront a labyrinth of secrets surrounding the family’s internment at a camp in the California desert during the Second World War, their postwar immigration to Toronto, and the father she has never known.
Epic in scope, intimate in style, After the Bloom blurs between the present and the ever-present past, beautifully depicting one family’s struggle to face the darker side of its history and find some form of redemption.
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Their house had always been a wreck. The difference was that back then Rita assumed all houses were like that. Paint on the porch peeling, like old nail polish. Full of boarders, or “guests, ” as Lily liked to call them; everyone lined up in the cramped hall to use the bathroom at night. The floors of some rooms were so uneven that if Rita closed her eyes, everything seemed to spin gently, the feeling of drunkenness, she’d realize years later.
Cracks in the bricks up one side had gotten worse. Now the whole house looked tilted, about to sink.
It was a bright, hot morning in July. Under normal circumstances, she’d be out for a jog. Instead she was here, squinting up at her childhood home and lingering on the pavement, as if someone had stood her up. Through the yellowed curtains of the house across the street, an old lady peeked out, probably wondering what on earth Rita was doing here, for the second morning in a row, no less. Maybe Rita looked as though she were on a mission to scope the neighbourhood, one of those rich Asians in the slum landlord business.
A little girl ran by, her bright green T-shirt appearing to pulsate with the most amazing greenness, and it seemed impossible that normal life was continuing on kids were out enjoying the nice weather.
For a blissful moment, Rita felt like she could press the rewind button and slip back, so easily, into thinking that everything was going to be just fine. Of course it was. Lily had antsy feet. And a whimsical heart. She’d wandered off before and had always come back. It was the trademark of women of her generation: despite their veneer of stoicism, deep down anger simmered. They were tired of doing everything for everyone, sick of life as doormats. So from time to time, they blew off steam, hit the road. All mothers did this or felt like doing this didn’t they? Rita was a mom and she’d felt that way before, as though she were destined to live like the little red hen. It was normal to go on strike, wasn’t it?
She closed her eyes and let the darkness take over, not the comforting darkness of sleep, but a deeper, more frightening blackness. The pep talk she’d just been giving herself lost all conviction, sounded as hollow as it was. While it was true that Lily had traipsed off before, she’d always been found within a few hours.
Someone had left a pile of old clothes on the curb. A faded mauve shirt with a crushed-in collar. Baby-doll pumps in dark cherry leather, the round toes scuffed and flattened, like they’d been stepped on. Lily had once worn shoes like that and carried a matching handbag.
A wheezing sound gathered force from somewhere, and it took Rita a moment to realize that it was her own breath the air shortening, dying in hot bursts in her throat and all she could think was that maybe it was already too late. A vision swept over her: a small, pallid face touched by a bluish tint, generic and expressionless, the way dead people appeared on TV. She squeezed her eyes tighter and refused to believe that face could be her mother’s.
Three days ago, Lily had gone missing. “Missing people with a history of memory problems often go back to the places they used to live, ” the police officer had said, handing over a FAQ sheet for family members. It seemed this sort of thing happened more often than you’d guess. The cop a woman, wearing just a trace of nude lipstick tried to be encouraging, but not overly so. She’d been through the drill before.
Bloor-Lansdowne. Not the poshest part of Toronto, that was for sure. The houses were crammed so close together that they appeared to be falling into each other at uneven heights. Translucent shower curtains turned front porches into makeshift sunrooms, every second house festooned with Christmas lights that never came down. Very little about the neighbourhood had changed since Rita’s childhood (beyond the opening of a new strip club). Even the humid air, mixed with the humidity of her own palpitating body, seemed too familiar, oppressive.
What was she supposed to be doing? It didn’t seem likely that her mother would miraculously stroll by. Yesterday Rita had knocked on the door of the old house. An old tawny-skinned guy had answered. “No, ” he’d said flatly, when she showed him Lily’s photo. He kept saying no in response to all her questions; perhaps he didn’t understand English.
Over his shoulder, she could see someone shuffling in the shadows. Peering in, she half expected Grandpa or Aunt Haruko to come into focus, as though for all these years their ghosts had remained right here, keeping the home fires burning. But Aunt Haruko would have never let that grime build up on the windows. Now the place was inhabited by a hodgepodge of sad souls from far-flung, war-torn countries, the mysterious odours of all their foods clashing, blending together in an oily fug.
Yet that was what people had once said about her own family. Rita had never managed to forget the peculiar, withering sensation of being looked at that way. And now, a couple decades later, here she was on the other side of that pitying, judgmental gaze.
Up and down the block and for four blocks in all directions, she’d plastered her bright yellow sheets on phone poles, telephone booths, mailboxes. MISSING PERSON across the top. The photo had been taken on Lily’s honeymoon last year. Although only the head portion had been cropped, Rita couldn’t help but see the larger image: smiling vivaciously, her mother was perched on the edge of a chaise longue, white foam waves crashing down behind her, pina colada in hand, the tiny pink umbrella as bright as her lipstick. Sixty, she could easily pass for ten years younger. Her dyed black hair fell in loose, permed curls, remarkably similar to the way Rita remembered it as a child.
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Leslie Shimotakahara uses bold strokes of unflinching and honest prose to paint a landscape of beauty and brutality in her compelling debut novel After the Bloom as she tells one woman’s journey and a daughter’s desire for truth. Like evocative cherry blossoms, Shimotakahara’s powerful words float from page to page, enticing the reader to take courageous steps through the tragedy and oppression of an internment camp. With sharp insight and grace, she has created a narrative full of emotional impact and vivid characters. After the Bloom is deeply moving and enthralling with scenes that will remain with readers long after the ending. This book is just the beginning of a brilliant career for this captivating new voice.
A masterful and deeply moving tale of mothers and daughters, of hidden histories and repressed memories, of loss and of love, After the Bloom is a potent reminder of the legacy of the internment and the power of reclaiming the past.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I found this novel a bit hard to follow at times. The novel seemed jumpy and the flow wasn’t consistent for me. I think the subject matter and the story itself was interesting but the way it was delivered, did not work for me. In the past, Rita’s mother Lily, has disappeared for a few days but eventually she returns to her family and life continues. This time, Lily’s disappearance has Rita concerned. With her elderly mother gone, Rita contacts the police but they believe that Lily will eventually return like she always does. Rita decides to do her own investigating to see if she can locate her mother. What she soon finds out is that her mother was not only going to her Nisei Women’s Group but she started to attend another closed-group meeting, a group that Rita knew nothing about. When her mother talks about her past, she mentions camps but these conversations were short and without much detail. No one talked about these camps and the conversation was dropped. Now, Rita wants to know more about these camps but who is she going to get her information from? Able to locate the date and time of the next closed-group meeting, Rita hears the words redress and internment and she can’t possibly believe that her mother is associated with these individuals. Rita is slowly uncovering a part of her own history and finding her mother in the process. I received a copy of this novel from NetGalley and Dundurn in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for sharing this novel with me.