Lately I have been avoiding novels with dual plot lines, one set in the past and one in the present. Too often, the contemporary part seems kind of tacked on as an artificial way of connecting with modern-day readers. For me, that ruins the historical part.
But in Sarah Bird’s lovely and haunting Above the East China Sea, past and present are blended into the Okinawan culture in which her story is set. The living honor and care for the dead even as they plan for their own transition to the other side.
During World War II, Okinawans were compelled to support Japan’s war against the Allies. In 1945, as they prepare for a U.S. invasion, Tamiko and her sister Hatsuko begin working as nurses in the hospitals the Japanese Imperial Army has established in the island’s caves. On modern-day Okinawa, teenager Luz, living on a U.S. military base, is trying to cope with the death of her only sister. Sarah Bird seamlessly weaves these two stories together, painting a devastating portrait of war, racism, love, and loss.