Book Review: Toyo by Lily Chan

Wednesday, May 14, 2014
I love reading. Books are amazing. They are a form of escapism, yes, but they are also inspiration, joy, and... well. Goodness. I think in some ways I have used my appetite for reading to define parts of my personality, so it made sense for me to review some of what I read! Here we go...

Title: Toyo
Author: Lily Chan
Publication Date: first published in 2012

Synopsis: "Blending the intimacy of memoir with an artist's vision, Toyo is the story of a remarkable woman, a vivid picture of Japan before and after war, and an unpredictable tale of courage and change in today's Australia.
Born into the traditional world of pre-war Osaka, Toyo must always protect the secret of her parents' true relationship. Her father lives in China with his wife; her unmarried mother runs a cafe. Toyo and her mother are beautiful and polite, keeping themselves in society's good graces.
Then comes the rain of American bombs. Toyo's life is uprooted again and again. With each sharp change and painful loss, she becomes more herself and more aware of where she has come from. She finds family and belief, but still clings to her parents' secret.
In Toyo, Lily Chan has pieced together the unconventional shape of her grandmother's story. Vibrant and ultimately heart-rending, Toyo is the chronicle of an extraordinary life, infused with a granddaughter's love."

My thoughts: Okay, a little context here. I originally bought this book early last year [2013] when I went to the Perth Writer's Festival and went along to a panel that had Benjamin Law on it (author of Gaysia and The Family Law). The panel was about writing memoirs in different ways and dealing with writing about people who actually exist and, often, are still alive... and all the difficulties and interesting occurrences that come along with that. Lily Chan, in case you haven't realised, was on that panel. She was quiet and didn't speak much, but when she did I was intrigued. I bought her book along with a few others during the festival, and then promptly put it on my shelf to read 'later'.
Fast forward to about two weeks ago when I pulled the title of this book out of my TBR Jar and started reading it.

I did not expect to like this book, if I'm being brutally honest. I tend to move away from anything that has past wars and such within it (I am a delicate soul... kind of) as I either find them too confronting or, if I'm still being honest, a bit on the boring side. I go through phases of learning about world history, and then I go through (much longer) phases of not...doing...that.
Anyway, Toyo caught me completely off guard. Here I was just trying to get through a book that had been on my shelves for far too long, and I actually started to really love the characters, and to adore the lyrical and soft tone that Chan writes with. She doesn't over-describe things, which I loved, but she also doesn't skip over things that need mentioning.
I don't want to give too much away as that would be spoiler-iffic, and mean, but let me just say that Toyo (Lily's grandmother, the actual character/person being written about) experienced some sadness in her life, and you feel that. But it isn't in a way that I have experienced with other books that have led to me putting them down and having to watch My Little Pony for a few hours to recover (has actually happened), but in a way that shows the extent of the sadness, but in such a gentle way for the reader.
Even when the young Lily is introduced into the story, she doesn't take over. The book remains about Toyo's experience and her life, and the way she relates to her family and deals with getting older and moving across the world.

Overall, this book was a huge surprise, and it has quickly become a favourite for me. Not even 300 pages, this book made me feel quiet and thoughtful - not many books have the ability to do that.

You would like this book if: you enjoy trying something a bit different; you have an interest in reading about the life of someone who grew up in Japan.

Rating:  9/10

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