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The Color of Air

Review

The Color of Air

Under the watchful gaze of the volcano Mauna Loa, generations of Hilo families have tended to life and work on farms and plantations, and in stores and schools. However, the inhabitants of this island paradise are aware that one day the volcano will explode, and Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire and the creator of the Hawaiian Islands, will make her displeasure with them known.

THE COLOR OF AIR, Gail Tsukiyama’s beautiful new novel (her first in eight years), is a multi-generational tale of one small community’s shared history and the heroism of its native sons to move forward into unsure futures while safeguarding the important memories of a storied past.

Daniel Abe is a successful young doctor in Chicago. Having worked hard against the obstacles of money, distance and racism in order to achieve his dreams, he is returning to his island home in Hawai'i. His Uncle Koji greets him as he would his own son, as do all the folks who supported him on his journey. However, it is Koji who must give Daniel the hard truths about family secrets that his parents tried to take to their graves. When Mauna Loa explodes on the day of his return, making a path for their village, the longings --- both dangerous and secret --- of his family flow heatedly into the present like the lava from on high.

"This is an outstanding story about the effects of the past on the present and the ways in which the sins of our fathers (and mothers) get stuck in our emotional DNA."

Wrapping a story around history, beginning with the fateful volcanic eruption of 1935 and moving into the future, THE COLOR OF AIR explores the reasons that Daniel, Koji and Mariko, Koji’s wife, both stay tied to and are at odds with their immigrant community, and the way they value its history and rail against it simultaneously. Mauna Loa threatens everything they hold dear. But it also gives them the opportunity to share honestly with each other the love and losses that have shaped their individual lives, illuminating the ties that have bound them together for decades.

Daniel is in love with Maile, the woman most likely to win his hand in marriage. However, there is much that he needs to discover and accept if their union is to become a reality. As Koji, Mariko and his grandmother, the delightful and wise Nori, make clear, you can’t go home again without accepting that both everything and nothing changes. The relationship he has with his Uncle Koji is perhaps the most startling of the changes that he must decipher and learn to accept. Koji’s story is heartbreaking, and his character is a carefully wrought picture of a man who will do anything to get what he wants.

However, it is in the chapter titled “Ghost Voices” --- those whispers from the past that help us shape an understanding of the long history of this spiritually full community --- that THE COLOR OF AIR shows off Tsukiyama’s clean, cool, elegant prose. These stories from the past provide a context for the reader, so that the true consequences of each character’s actions are heightened. For such a measured literary feat, the novel flexes its muscle in the depth of the characterizations from past, present and the world beyond ours. Its precise prose pulls you in like a gentle breeze that suddenly shifts into dark and ominous clouds like a quick summer storm. The book shapes a conversation about race and culture that finds a purposeful foothold in today’s frantic, searching maelstrom without bells and whistles. It gives us a world to explore that mixes those general topics with individual lives, keeping us glued to every page. (This would make a great book club read!)

Tsukiyama presents the egalitarian view of this paradise and its people and history. THE COLOR OF AIR intermingles these multidimensional characters in personal dramas that change and surprise us at every turn. As the lava from the mountains flow in different paths each day, so do the lives of Daniel and everyone in his community. This is an outstanding story about the effects of the past on the present and the ways in which the sins of our fathers (and mothers) get stuck in our emotional DNA. The measure of a man, in this case Daniel, is how well he can traverse the messy freeways of love and death, and emerge --- enlightened and safe --- on the other side of history.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on July 24, 2020

The Color of Air
by Gail Tsukiyama

  • Publication Date: July 7, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: HarperVia
  • ISBN-10: 0062976192
  • ISBN-13: 9780062976192