I just finished reading Star Sand by Roger Pulvers. It was… Okay.
I’ve been on a bit of a WWII kick recently. It started when Lynne and I watched The Man In The High Castle on Hulu. That book is definitely on my must-read list.
That probably explains why Star Sand jumped off the page at me.
Like many of the books I plan to read this year, this one came to me through Kindle First. I have a bit of a backlog built up.
Star Sand is the story of a young Japanese girl named Umeno Hiromi living on a small island in 1945. She finds two men by a cave on the beach, one American and one Japanese, who had each deserted from their respective army units.
These two men who, should have been enemies, quickly become friends. Umeno finds herself befriending both, and helping them survive despite the fact that she’d be executed if she were caught helping either either man – the enemy or the traitor – let alone both.
As interesting as that setup was, the characters themselves fell a little flat for me. They felt a little forced – particularly Bob, the American soldier.
It was the way Bob spoke. Pulvers crafted the character’s personality and speech in ways that were (presumably) meant to highlight some of the cultural differences between Bob and the Japanese characters surrounding him. More laid back, less formal.
To me, it just made Bob sounds like a babbling goof. He’d ramble, and or speak abruptly in ways that didn’t work for me. I’m sure those habits would really stand out to a character like the story’s Japanese narrator so this may have been intentional. For me it just didn’t feel believable as a reader.
There were times when those cultural differences worked really well. At one point Umeno chooses not to translate something Bob has said because she didn’t think she could express the irony of his joke. It was a clean, subtle way to outline how different things like humor can be from one culture to the next.
Other characters had similar issues – they had a primary personality trait or two (like the Japanese soldier, Iwabuchi – quiet and peaceful, or Umeno’s neighbors – nosy and judgy) but no real depth.
Something Pulvers did really well was highlight the feeling of isolation that Umeno and her people felt. The war had passed by their little island. They weren’t under attack like other parts of Japan. Even so, everything revolved around the war. The future was always ‘after the war’ and the past ‘before the war.’ Everything was thought about in that context – Pulvers delivered that message powerfully.
The story has an interesting ending – not what I expected, but also not in a way that totally worked for me – it was close though 🙂
Spoiler! (All about the ending)
To be honest, I kind of liked it better when I thought Iwabuchi’s brother had killed Umeno along with the two soldiers she’d been looking after. It was horrible, and tragic, but it left you believing Umeno died doing what she knew to be right – defending her friends who, despite their respective pasts, had chosen peace in a time of war.
She killed Iwabuchi’s brother and then dressed him in her clothes so she’d be presumed dead. Then went back to the cave with a fabricated diary, and proceeded to live out her life. After all that work to disappear, she did a horrible job of hiding. That made no sense to me. Maybe if she’d been found all those years later living under an assumed name, it would have felt more believable. The end of story narrator picking up on the ballpoint pen clue was pretty cool.
Speaking of that second narrator – as much as I hate to beat a dead horse, that was another character that brought the book down a notch. The person who is only in the book to highlight the heroism of your protagonist shouldn’t come across as childish, whiny, and shallow. She was a character I wanted to like – but just couldn’t.
Yes, this was a character in 2011, instead of 1945. Pulvers was probably trying to show the change in the way a young Japanese girl might see the world, but it was a little overdone – kind of like Bob.