Born in Peru and raised in Chile but now settled in California, Allende was awarded America’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2014 for her ‘especially meritorious contributions’ to American life.
Her outstanding novels, which include the bestselling The House of the Spirits and City of the Beasts, are noted for their use of ‘magic realism’ and often feature real historical events and Allende’s own life experiences.
Now aged 73, Allende has set much of her new, beautifully wrought, multigenerational story, The Japanese Lover, in a quirky old people’s home in San Francisco Bay where Holocaust survivor Alma Belasco meets carer Irina Bazili, a young Moldovan immigrant haunted by her troubled past.
Both women fled their homes in Eastern Europe and both have secrets in their past… and as they forge an unexpected friendship we learn of Alma’s forbidden love affair with a Japanese man which has endured, against many odds, for nearly 70 years.
In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis, young Alma’s parents send her away to live in safety with an aunt and uncle in their opulent mansion in San Francisco. There, as the rest of the world goes to war, she encounters Ichimei Fukuda, the quiet and gentle son of the family’s Japanese gardener.
Unnoticed by those around them, a tender love affair begins to blossom between the two young people but interracial marriage is forbidden in 1940s America. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the teenagers are cruelly pulled apart as Ichimei and his family, like thousands of other Japanese Americans, are declared enemies and forcibly relocated to internment camps run by the US government.
Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but theirs is a love that they are forever forced to hide from the world.
Decades later, Alma is nearing the end of her long and eventful life in Lark House, a charmingly eccentric nursing home for middle-class, left-wing ‘intellectuals, oddballs and second-rate artists.’
Irina Bazili, a care worker struggling to come to terms with her own troubled past in Moldova, meets the elderly Alma, an octogenarian with her own ‘magnetic force field,’ and her grandson Seth who is writing a book about Alma’s life.
Seth and Irina, now enlisted as Alma’s secretary, become intrigued by a series of mysterious gifts and letters sent to Alma, eventually learning about Ichimei and an extraordinary secret passion.
But as love starts to blossom between Seth and Irina, she will finally have to confront the unsavoury truths in her own murky past…
Allende weaves past and present with the ease and silky skills of a born storyteller as we are swept across some of the major events of the 20th century, from the Nazi atrocities in
Poland and the dangerous work of the French Resistance to the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbour and the Aids crisis that shook the world.
And yet no player in this memorable tale of love, loss and redemption is allowed to go unnoticed… Allende endows each of her characters with individuality, personal history and remarkable credibility.
But at the tender core of this passionate and powerful novel is a moving love affair which survives cruelty, separation and heartache, and proves that the human heart is capable of bestowing love and affection in all its different forms.
Laced with Allende’s trademark wit, warmth and wisdom, this is a story of big themes and small human lives which will resonate long after the last page has turned…
(Scribner, paperback, £7.99)