Award-winning author Karen Hill Anton is an extraordinary person. Originally from New York City, she moved to the countryside of Shizuoka, Japan in the mid-1970s with her husband William, also a New Yorker. They have lived there ever since, raising four lovely children, who have themselves gone on to light up the world.
I first became familiar with Karen’s work in the mid-1980s when I lived in Tokyo. She wrote a popular column for the Japan Times called “Crossing Cultures,” which I read at every opportunity. In her column she covered the expected topics of cross-cultural difference in unexpected ways, laced with humor and self-reflection. She also wrote in celebration of Japanese rural life, dispelling stereotypes and acknowledging the strength, warmth, and ingenuity of the women she encountered there.
Recently Karen has been publishing in other formats, and the results have been stunning. Her memoir, The View from Breast Pocket Mountain, chronicling her journey from New York to Shizuoka, has won multiple awards, among them the Grand Prize of the 2022 Memoir Prize for Books, the 2021 B.R.A.G Medallion, and the 2020 SPR Book Awards Gold Prize. I have yet to read her memoir, and I look forward to doing so.
More recently Karen published her first novel, A Thousand Graces, which I read and review below.
In an interview with SWET (Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators), Karen notes that she started writing this novel in the 1990s but lost interest and stowed the unfinished draft away. Coming upon it years later, she was drawn into the story and to the characters she had created. She wanted to let them grow and felt badly for “abandoning” them.
Encouraged by other writers, such as playwright and translator Roger Pulvers, she finished her novel.
I am so glad she did!
Please see my full review below, originally published by Writers in Kyoto.
Karen Hill Anton’s Moving Portrait of Love and Loss in 1970s Japan
So begins Karen Hill Anton’s elegantly subdued debut novel, A Thousand Graces, a story th
at charts the lives of a diverse cast of characters held in place by expectations and rules that are so commonplace they have no name.
On the brink of immense social change in 1970s Japan, this is a story of entanglement, of the invisible bonds tying the characters inextricably to the past, to family, to class division and gender disparity, to unspoken dreams and thwarted desires. Although set in a fictional tea-producing enclave somewhere on the island of Honshu, Japan, the story is one that strikes a universal chord. It will resonate with any group of people facing a sea change in social order who remain unaware of what awaits. They only sense the presence of something more, something beyond their ken.
Chie, whose name means “a thousand graces,” is at the heart of this novel. Mrs. Uchida, Chie’s mother, had wanted to name her daughter Yuri, or Lily, after her favorite flower. But Chie’s grandfather asserted his privilege to bestow her name, and “a thousand graces” she became.
This slight anecdote, presented early in the novel, encapsulates so much of the tension that the story navigates: the rights of the patriarch, the importance of legacy, the grip of tradition, the usurpation of the female voice, and the bitter irony that a girl whose name suggests limitless blessings encounters nothing but limits.
In her late teens when the novel starts, we follow Chie as she leaves her close-knit farming community to attend a junior college in the fictional town of Takaizu, itself hardly a bustling metropolis. Strikingly beautiful, yet unassuming and quiet, Chie is a young woman with places to go. Her mother has encouraged Chie’s studies, refusing to allow her to work in the family tea fields, determined that with her two-year degree and fair skin, Chie will be able to marry above her class.
Chie is a fierce reader and eager to learn but momentarily disconcerted when she meets her new college professor, the charismatic and darkly handsome New Yorker Carl Rosen. Eager to escape the emptiness of a broken marriage and start anew, Carl has relocated to this small city on the edge of the tea fields. Here he teaches courses devoted to women writers like Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, and Doris Lessing and expects his students to write papers in English about their feelings and articulate their opinions, a task Chie struggles to meet. Resolved to broaden the horizons of his female students, Carl wants the sheltered women in his classes to aspire to something more than marriage. And, Chie does.
Carl is sponsored at the college by Toshinaga Sakai, professor of Japanese literature and program director. Toshi, as Carl calls his friend, has lived in the United States and prides himself on being open-minded and far more of a supportive family man than his own father had ever been. For example, he indulges his wife, Yoshiko, in her interests, encouraging her to pursue tastes as varied as cha-no-yu and jazz, the latter indulgence she enjoys with Carl.
Here we have the essential cast of characters, four intelligent individuals, thoughtful and sensitive, but frequently painfully blind to the larger implications of their actions. It is these implications, then, that form the forward momentum of the novel. In ways unbeknownst to them, their lives become intimately, and in some cases, tragically entwined. Although as readers we are able to anticipate the direction of the narrative, Anton is such a skilled storyteller, that our anticipation never gets in the way. In other words, we know what will happen because it has to. But we want to read how it will happen for the sheer delight of savoring Anton’s luminously poetic prose.
A Thousand Graces is set during the early half of the decade of the 1970s, a tumultuous time the world over but particularly, in Japan. The 1970s saw dramatic economic growth in Japan alongside staggering oil shocks, political scandals, deadly protests, terrorist plots, a literary suicide, and the “return” of Okinawa, but of all of these, the event with the most lasting repercussions—and certainly most significance to this story—is the women’s movement.
Nurtured on postwar political gains (such as the right to vote), greater access to higher education, and the proliferation of time-saving household appliances (the “three sacred treasures” of a washing machine, refrigerator, and television), women began to aspire to life trajectories that exceeded the role of housewife.
Second-wave feminism emerged in Japan in the 1960s and was fully entrenched by the 1970s with magazine debates on female sexuality, lectures on equality in the labor force, and the rise of vocal women writers.
At least academically speaking.
It would take more time for these attitudes to filter into the everyday lives of ordinary people, people like Chie and Yoshiko and the men who encircle them. Both of these female characters are deeply unhappy within the limited frames of their lives. They want more but either they do not know what they want and how to get it, or they are too afraid of the explosive reactions should they act on their desires. Fundamentally, neither Chie nor Yoshiko has role models other than their own mothers or the chimeras they find in films, books, and music. They do not know how to want what they want.
The tragedy at the heart of A Thousand Graces is that the men who love these women, who feel responsible for them, and who believe they are protecting them, are the ones who ruin whatever chance at happiness the women (and even they themselves) may have had. The men, for all their ostensible sensitivities, are too devoted to their own happiness, their own reputations to recognize the damage they have wrought, particularly so for Chie. A truly gifted young woman, she nevertheless lacks the experience or the vocabulary (in either Japanese or English) to advocate on her own behalf. The men positioned as her guardians and mentors—her father, her teacher, her advisor—fail her at every turn.
Likewise, the women in her life remand her to the path of the past.
A Thousand Graces is a tragic story but the heartbreak is mitigated by the sheer beauty of Karen Hill Anton’s prose. Hers is not a showy style over encumbered by long expositions on “Japanese traditions” and such. Rather with a light and shimmering touch, she paints a compelling portrait of life in 1970s Japan, of the countryside, the family gatherings, the twin longings for past and future, and the seasonal beauty of the moment. Hers is a magical world of a distant time in an imagined place that will linger with the reader long after the last page.