Forces greater than history

SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS by David Guterson, Bloomsbury pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
If, by some extraordinary confluence of time, fate and nautical misfortune, Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Harper Lee and John Grisham all washed up on a desert island together; and if, once there, they decided to collaborate on a book, they might well come up with something like this. Provided, of course, they didn't argue over syntax and eat each other first.

David Guterson's majestic debut novel, winner of the 1994 Pen/Faulkner award for Fiction, is an exquisite hybrid, weaving strains from both classic and populist American literature into a fruitful and gloriously original whole. Nail-biting courtroom drama blossoms into a Milleresque exposition of small-town bigotry and redemption, presenting the reader not only with a page-whizzing narrative but a revealing scrap-book of pre- and post-war Americana.

Set in 1954 on a snow-lashed island in the Pacific North West, the novel revolves around the murder trial of a Japanese-American fisherman, Kabuo Miyamoto. As prosecution and defence grapple for the souls of the jury, those most closely associated with the case - Miyamoto, his wife Hatsue, one-armed journalist Ishmael Chambers - wander backwards through a tangled collective history, scouring their memories for intimations of the present. Courtroom disclosures unfold beside, and merge into, extended snapshots of the past - Hatsue and Ishmael's childhood romance; the vicious wartime internment of Japanese-Americans; the loss of Ishmael's arm to a Japanese machine-gun shell - so that the immediate, legal search for truth broadens into a wider reckoning with what has gone before.

Driven by Guterson's mesmeric, quasi-biblical prose, this is, in part, a novel about cultural polarisation, the seemingly unbridgeable divide between white and Japanese Americans. "The whites are tempted by their egos," explains Hatsue's mother, Fujiko. "We Japanese, on the other hand, know our egos are nothing. That is the fundamental difference." In the book's heart, however, lies less a story of cultural conflict as one of cultural redemption. Just as Ishmael is burdened by an aching, scar-tissued stump of amputated arm, so his fellow protagonists, American and Japanese alike, carry with them a burdensome dead weight of cultural bigotry. "What I see is the same human frailty passed from generation to generation," opines Kabuo's defence lawyer. "We hate one another. We are the victims of irrational fear. And there is nothing in the stream of human history to suggest we are going to change this."

Human history, however, is not all. Cedars leaf and fall irrespective of human endeavour, and snow tumbles whatever the disposition of Man. "All human claims to the landscape were superseded by the snow. The world was one world, and the notion that a man might kill another over some small patch of it did not make sense." There are forces greater than those of history, Guterson tells us, and the chains of the past need not be unbreakable. His characters struggle not just against each other, but against their respective backgrounds, seeking to confront the past's misdeeds, redeem them, and then move onward.

It is a message of profound optimism - minutely plotted, eloquently delivered - and one that will have Capote, Miller, Lee and Grisham kicking themselves for never getting shipwrecked on that desert island.