As a couch potato in a family of long-distance cyclists, I’ve always been envious of the red-faced exhilaration of a loved one returning from a workout. Luckily, novels like Asha Lemmie’s propulsive debut allow me to experience the high of the endurance athlete — consumed by a far-flung odyssey, coming up only for a sip of water (or leftover potato salad). I inhaled FIFTY WORDS FOR RAIN (Dutton, 464 pp., $26) in one day; I had no choice.
“Do not question. Do not fight. Do not resist,” Noriko Kamiza’s mother tells her when she stops their car across the street from an imposing walled estate in Kyoto. Noriko steps onto the pavement, clutching her suitcase, noticing for the first time that her mother doesn’t have any luggage. Lemmie writes, “She could not so much as blink as she watched the car speed down the street, around the corner and out of sight.” Nori is only 8 years old, but she understands that her mother is gone for good.
If you are a “Flowers in the Attic” enthusiast, this story may give you a sense of déjà vu. There’s the unfamiliar ancestral home, the abusive grandmother who locks Nori away in a garret and the clueless grandfather who must not be disturbed. But, while V.C. Andrews’s Dollenganger siblings had each other for company (ahem), Nori is alone.
Three times a week, the girl gets lessons in reading, writing, math and history. She endures painful daily scrubs with bleach and “the finest magic bath soap,” administered by a maid at the bidding of Nori’s grandmother, Lady Yuko, who wants to erase evidence of her married daughter’s affair with an African-American soldier. (The two met in 1939, when he was on leave in Japan.) The Kamiza family has ties to the emperor: Lady Yuko is his cousin, her husband is the emperor’s adviser. Nori’s skin color — and her existence — are a threat to their imperial status.
For better or for worse, time moves at warp speed in Lemmie’s world: 30 pages later, we’ve leapfrogged over three years. Suddenly, Nori learns that she has a half brother, Akira, who is about to move into the grim mansion following the death of his father. He becomes Nori’s champion, insisting that she be allowed outside, introducing her to music and serving as her first real friend. Scenes where the siblings are together are among the most moving in this emotionally draining (in a good way) novel, but they still bring with them a sense of foreboding. Are we supposed to trust Akira? Is he a stand-up guy or his grandmother’s pawn?