Although she is an American now based in England, Alison Jean Lester has variously studied, worked, and raised children in China, Italy, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore. Her first novel, Lillian on Life, was published in 2015, and her second, Yuki Means Happiness, came out in July.
Set in Tokyo, Yuki Means Happiness concerns the relationship between Diana, a young nanny newly-arrived from America, and her charge, two-year-old Yuki Yoshimura. As Diana becomes increasingly attached to Yuki she also becomes aware that not everything in the Yoshimura household is as it first seemed. Before long, she must ask herself if she is brave enough to put everything on the line for Yuki, and thereby confront too her own demons.
So, over to Alison Jean…
At the launch of my second novel, Yuki Means Happiness, I decided to sing a song to set the mood. We were in a bookstore in Birmingham, England, and I wanted the audience to travel with me to Japan. The song was called Habu no minato, which is Habu harbour in English. I had learned it from my singing teacher, Matsuno Tadako, when I lived in Tokyo, and used to sing it to my daughter as a lullaby. In rough translation, the lyrics are:
The seabirds return when the sun goes down
Habu harbour glows red at sunset
What will tomorrow’s weather bring?
The boats hurry to beat each other out to sea
The daughters of the island stay on the volcano
What kind of heart does it take?
I find the question as to the weather very emotive, even though it’s something we ask almost daily, placed as it is in contrast to the peace of the returning birds and the setting sun. The second question packs twice the punch: What kind of heart does it take to live on a volcano?
Singing this song became an opportunity for me not just to create a mood but also to place before the group the central questions of the fiction-writer’s life: What will happen, and what kind of heart can manage what happens? What will be the volcano in my story? How long will it take for it to erupt? Who will be in danger? Who will be out at sea?
Yuki Means Happiness follows Diana, a young American nurse, as she embarks (isn’t it interesting that we always use this nautical verb?) on an adventure by fleeing the perceived dangers of another, named Porter. “I felt like we were paddling at the edge of a lagoon, and the water was clear and fresh,” she says, “but we’d begun moving away from shore, and I knew I would lose my footing.” Unwilling to confront the weather out at sea with Porter, she accepts an offer to take care of a two-year-old girl in Tokyo. She’s never been to Japan, she doesn’t speak the language, she doesn’t know the customs, she’s never experienced jet lag . . . and still she thinks it will solve her problems. She has no idea she’s off to live on a volcano.
But it’s good news for readers when there’s lava creeping along under the crust of a story, looking for a crack to surge through. That means action, and reaction, and a testing of hearts.
My 19-year-old son admitted to me the other day that he had lied about the books he was reading during high school. Apparently he’d only ever pretended to read. But then he gave me a list of the books he had recently enjoyed and described what it was doing to his brain. “I hate it when the narrator at the end of the story is just the same as they were at the beginning,” he told me. "They have to change.”
So that’s what the weather’s for, and the lava. The weather can be anything challenging – an atmosphere, or an actual storm. The volcano can be any sort of danger – a person, a social crisis, the narrator’s own psychology. No matter how writers choose to lay the groundwork for their stories, though, character development (both literary and literal) will always come back to the question of what kind of heart it takes to survive, and to prevail.
Details: Yuki Means Happiness is published in hardback and eBook by John Murray. Priced in local currencies. The paperback will be out in January, 2018.