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One Morning Like a Bird, by Andrew Miller

Coming of age in Tokyo – amid chaos

Yuji is a young writer in the Tokyo of 1940, deeply divided in his loyalties between East and West. Like many an intellectual, he is addicted to the foreign avant garde: the films of Renoir and Lang, the writings of Gide and Rimbaud. Yet Yuji is steeped in Japan's refined pastimes and rituals: bathhouses, shrines, kabuki theatres and sushi restaurants all exert a sensuous, pervasive grip. He has published a slim volume of poems, but now his muse has gone and his father has cut off his allowance. This is not an auspicious moment to look for a livelihood in Japan or, indeed, to travel abroad in search of opportunities.

It is doubtful whether Yuji can leave at all; if he does, it is likely to be in uniform. The Imperial war machine is insatiable, sucking down hundreds of thousands of men down into its maw. Tokyo is coming under threat from American bombers, this imminent cataclysm the latest of a long succession of disasters. Yuji has survived the great Kantô earthquake of 1923, which claimed the life of his brother Ryuichi, and his dreams are still haunted by the quake and fire storms that followed. The axis of Andrew Miller's novel is the convergence of Yuji's passage into adulthood with the terrible endgame poised to envelop his city.

Miller's trademark is silken prose which gleams with acutely rendered detail. Snow at New Year lies "like laundry in the arms of the persimmon tree outside Mother's window, and like a perfect scoop of sugar on the saddle of Yuji's bicycle". When this stylistic fluency is brought to bear on Yuji, the result is a character so well realised as to engage all of our sympathies.

Much of what we learn of his fragile efforts to take control of his life comes through his interactions with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Prominent among them is Yuji's grandfather, formerly an entrepreneur but occupying himself in retirement by building an obsessively accurate scale model of the city before the earthquake.

Grandfather's hobby is a deftly placed metaphor for Miller's endeavour to immerse us in his own replication of old Tokyo. Mostly, he is supremely successful, although his massings of humanity can be confusing, and there is a sense of a frustrating compression. While so many authors present works that would benefit from cutting Miller, as ever, leaves us asking for more.