I’ve been having a hard time sitting down to write this review because, well, I just don’t know. Listening to this audio book left me feeling like there was so much there, and also not enough. And I am torn, and really am not sure how I feel about it at the end of the day.
Block Seventeen by Kimiko Guthrie is told mainly from the perspective of Akiko (who goes by Jane), a half-Japanese, half-white woman living in San Francisco during the recession. Out of work and sewing dresses from home for a little income, lives with her fiance, Shiro, who works as a TSA agent and wants to expose the racist behaviors of his employers. As Shiro gets further caught up in his conspiracies and plans, Jane tries more and more to keep the peace, all while also desperately trying to get in physical contact with her mother, who seems to have disappeared from the physical realm only to be found online. In a series of escalating events in her apartment, Jane is confronted with a long-buried secret of her family’s history that occurred during the internment of Japanese Americans.
This novel paints a moving and mournful picture of the cycles and history of family trauma, as well as the physical and mental effects that repression and secrets can have on not just one person, but a whole web of interconnected lives. There is something to be said about communication and, in particular, communicating our needs to others that so many of us don’t seem to be able to do in a healthy way. At least, that’s what it feels like to me. While these themes are clear, this novel does include a little bit of mystery and fantastical elements, though not explicitly so. The reader ultimately gets to determine what is real, what is supernatural, and what is simply in the mind of the narrator.
Something that was very clear to me upon reading, however, was that right from the get-go I was about to witness a relationship that would eventually run its course. Seeing the destruction of a relationship as an outsider in this case was understandable and emotional, but coming in at the point that the story does, I couldn’t help but wonder what brought these two together to begin with. We start with two people who are obviously comfortable with one another because of being together for a long time, but what else? They have such opposing personalities and are both so unyielding in their approaches to conversations and events that it never feels like we see what the draw was. It’s not that they aren’t both engaging characters, but they just don’t work well together, you know? As a fictional couple or as two characters who I really wanted to see interacting because you just know how every conversation is going to go with them.
And on that note, something I couldn’t help but notice was the repetitive nature of many elements of the story. The same conversations being had, going in circles with Jane’s mother and Shiro and Jane’s realizations and rationalizations to herself, as well as the events we see and are told about either in real time or flashback. It’s almost as if Guthrie (or her editors) felt the need to explain everything to make sure the reader would understand, but I don’t know that that was necessary. Maybe there was a fear that people would be confused, but with such fantastical elements (that could be read as either magical or simply in the mind) the reader doesn’t per say need a rationalization for everything, right? That is not to say that everything is explained, but the cogs did feel like they were turning an awful lot and making sure that if we didn’t see something the first time, it would come up a few more times just to make it clear.
Ultimately, I settled into the tone and somber but curious mood of Block Seventeen very quickly and comfortably, yet I was still left feeling a little empty at the end. For a story that talks so much about the (physical) heat its characters are feeling, there was a coldness that never quite resolved for me, and I am still struggling to pinpoint what exactly that is.
Minor spoilers (telegraphed pretty heavily in the novel) but I should mention as a *content warning*: death of an infant [specifically, infanticide].