Review: The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

Lucy Scholes 

As the title suggests, a love story lies at the heart of Isabel Allende’s new novel. 

The Japanese Lover
Buy The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende for £10.99

Secret, passionate and forbidden; the romance between Alma Belasco, matriarch of a wealthy San Francisco family, and Ichimei Fukudo, the son of the Belasco family’s much beloved gardener, burns brightly for more than 50 years.

As enticing as Alma and Ichimei’s story is, it’s just one of the many narrative strands Allende delicately weaves together, all played out against a backdrop of grand historic upheaval.

The upheaval sweeps from the persecution of the Jews during WWII, and the dispassionate internment of Japanese-Americans that took place after Pearl Harbor, to the nightmarish sex trafficking trade in Eastern Europe, and the grim realities of the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s.

Given that each of these is a large and provocative enough subject to warrant an entire novel of its own, one might justifiably assume that to cram so many elements into a single book could lead to an uncomfortable glibness. In this however, as in so many areas of her writing, Allende handles her material like a pro.

"Something of a Disneyfied fairytale for grown-ups. A dusting of magical realism lingering on the sidelines, complete with monsters, but one in which love and forgiveness ultimately triumphs."

In less assured hands, it’s a story that could easily have become unwieldy, but she keeps her surprisingly concise 300-odd pages in check. Perhaps in part because the hugeness of each historic event is filtered through the trials of a single family or individual, a device that focuses the harsh realities into a crystal-clear pinprick of experience.

Although clearly unafraid to venture into these dark corners of history, the novel never peers too closely into the minds of its worst perpetrators. Allende is much more interested in those who’ve suffered. She instills a keen sense of agency in each of her protagonists which avoids a sense of morbid curiosity.

Isabel Allende
Image via Anderson Award

One character – I won’t spoil it by naming them – as a child, is sexually abused by a close family member, forced to endure “such excesses of depravity and violence that she possibly had not survived.” She does live, but not initially to tell the tale, keeping her past hidden from even those closest to her, though ultimately recovery wins out. 

I couldn’t help but compare Allende’s approach to that taken in another recent novel that deals with the long term effects of child abuse. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life also explores the inability to escape a past so overwhelmingly dark.

The Japanese Lover is something of a Disneyfied fairytale for grown-ups, a dusting of magical realism lingering on the sidelines, complete with monsters, but one in which love and forgiveness ultimately triumphs.

"Perhaps unsurprisingly given she’s now 73, Allende writes both realistically and compassionately about the twilight years."

Allende is also excellent on old age. When the story begins Alma is in her early 80s and living in Lark House, an assisted living facility that provides a home for “freethinkers, spiritual searchers, social and ecological activists, nihilists, and some of the few hippies still alive in the San Francisco Bay Area.” Or, as her daughter-in-law succinctly puts it, “a depositary for decrepit communists and potheads.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly given that she’s now 73, Allende writes both realistically and compassionately about the twilight years. Both their trials and tribulations – “what it meant to carry winter on your back, to hesitate over every step, to confuse words you don’t hear properly, to have the impression that the rest of the world is going about in a great rush; the emptiness, frailty, fatigue, and indifference towards everything not directly related to you, even children and grandchildren, whose absence was not felt as it once had been, and whose names you had to struggle to remember” – as well as debunking some myths along the way since these residents take part in street protests, keep themselves busy with causes and hobbies, and are encouraged to live life to the full.

There’s some occasional flowery prose and clunky dialogue; though whether this is down to rare lapses in Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson’s otherwise seamless translation or slips in Allende’s usually poised prose, is impossible to tell.

Allende’s skill is ultimately housed in “her sense of rhythm and ability to keep up the suspense, her way of contrasting luminous events with the most tragic ones,” the very same words she uses to describe her heroine’s storytelling.


The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende is published by Simon & Schuster, £18.99. Save 40% when you buy it in our bookshop for £10.99