Jamie Ford’s book Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a great work of beauty and eloquence. The split-narrative novel flows gracefully through heartwarming romance and heartbreaking tragedy in the turbulent war-torn past and the drastic changes and second chances to be found in the modern era.
The story centers on Chinese-American Henry Lee, alternating between his chaotic adolescence in 1942 and his aging present in the mid 1980s. Ford uses historical elements surrounding the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II as the setting for Henry’s childhood romance with Japanese friend Keiko, and the factual discovery in Seattle’s Panama Hotel of belongings of Japanese immigrants from that time as the catalyst for adult Henry’s memories.
The idea for Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was initially inspired by the childhood experiences of the author’s father – Ford wrote a short story that would evolve into the novel about the “I Am Chinese” button his father wore as a child. The button is as much a character in the novel as Henry and Keiko, who are the only students of Asian descent in an otherwise all-white private school in 1942 Seattle.
Henry’s overbearing, nationalistic father (who also insists Henry only “speak his American” at home) forces Henry to wear the “I Am Chinese” button to distinguish his son from “the enemy” Japanese during a time when even American citizens of Japanese heritage were rounded up as suspected spies and sent to “internment camps.”
Henry’s blossoming love with Keiko becomes a victim of such prejudice, first within his own home and then in the frightening outside world. The story is brimming with a wide array of emotions – the sweetness of Henry’s feelings for Keiko, the kinship he finds with a black jazz musician, the torment he experiences from school bullies, the frustration born from his strained relationship with his father, and the gut-wrenching sorrows and separations born of war.
The unique plot would be interesting and strong enough on its own, but Ford’s writing style brings it vividly, beautifully to life. The love story is touching without being overtly sentimental, the hurtful consequences of war and prejudice are subtly portrayed without being graphic or disturbing, and the inaudible soundtrack of 1940s jazz woven throughout the story gives the novel a palpable atmosphere of sophistication and elegance.
The book also has the rare ending that is truly satisfying. So often it seems even the best of novels lose steam by the end, but Ford prevented this by writing the final scene before the rest of the novel. The lovely paperback edition I bought includes “A Conversation With Jamie Ford” (you can read it at Ford’s site) in which the author is quoted as saying: “that ending is all-important for me. And by ending, I mean a real, unambiguous, nonmetaphorical ending. I look at storytelling as either banking or spending emotional currency with the reader. Good or bad, happy or sad, the ending is where those emotional debts are paid.” He more than accomplished that goal.
I can’t emphasize enough how extraordinary this novel is, everyone should read it.