Bird soars to literary greatness in “East China Sea”


“Above the East China Sea” by Sarah Bird; Knopf (336 pages, $25.95)

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching Sarah Bird’s career flourish during the past few years. Her books, sometimes serious in tone, sometimes lightly comedic, have a loyal Texas following.

Her latest novel, “Above the East China Sea,” should be the one that lands the Austin writer among the literary elite. This is the rare tome that has the goods for both popular and critical acclaim at the highest level.

“East China Sea,” like Bird’s 2001 “The Yokota Officers Club,” is set on Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu Islands south of Japan. Bird lived there on Kadena Air Base for a time as an “overseas military dependent,” a phrase she prefers to “military brat,” because, as she puts it in a publisher’s interview, “children raised by soldiers who put the mission above all else — including family — are some of the least bratty America produces.”

The book depicts with dreadful intensity the 82-day-long Battle of Okinawa in early 1945, when U.S. troops fought to claim the island. More than 95,000 Japanese and 12,000 Americans were killed, including more than a fourth of Okinawa’s civilian population; more people, in fact, than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

After the war, Japan surrendered an enormous chunk of valuable land for U.S. military bases, many of which (including Kadena) remain to this day.

Into this highly charged setting Bird thrusts her narrators, two spirited teen girls separated by time.

The two young women, named, Tamiko and Luz, have lives that intertwine in ways I won’t spoil, and the book is more serious overall than Bird’s previous work, where her wit was a major draw. The book does offer some comic relief, but is by no means “funny,” and Bird’s fans shouldn’t expect that.

What they should expect is never again having to explain who Sarah Bird is to another book lover. After this one, Bird should be a literary household name.

 

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