The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

2 of 5
The Gods of Heavenly Punishment
320 pages; W.W. Norton & Company
The great journalist Martha Gellhorn once wrote, "War happens to people, one by one." With her second novel, Jennifer Cody Epstein breathes life into Gellhorn's assertion. The Gods of Heavenly Punishment places very real-feeling characters in the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, an episode of World War II that most people find impossible to truly comprehend. At the heart of the book is Yoshi Kobayashi, a child when we meet her, although "even at six she seemed to ponder the world's weight, as though she knew already that childhood was merely a brief lead-in to the far more devastating business of adulthood." In her case, it's true: Her sheltered, trilingual youth is cut short when American bombers drop napalm on her city, and she finds herself starving, orphaned and traumatized, using her genteel piano-playing skills in a brothel. Around Yoshi spins an interconnected web of fascinating people: her charismatic, beautiful, mysterious mother; her father, as passionate about building up the Japanese empire as he is distant from his family; a downed bomber pilot whose young wife waits at home with their new baby; a timid boy with a camera; an architect whose love of Japanese buildings makes him the ideal person to help destroy them. As the connections between all these people become clear, the book reveals itself to be as miraculously constructed as Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (which itself is a character). The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is a page-turner thanks to its high-stakes adventure, torrid love affairs and characters so real they seem to follow you around. And in the end, this gripping novel asks us not just to consider a lost chapter of a famous war but also to explore what it means to be lucky—and what it means to be loved.
— Amy Shearn