The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney
Set in the North of Washington State, near the border with Canada in 1954, Snow Falling On Cedars focuses on the trial of a Japanese American suspected of the murder of a local fisherman. In doing so it explores the experience of Japanese Americans during and after the Second World War and the complex of prejudice and resentment they encountered. If that sounds like a preachy book, then I should add that Guterson is not given to generalisations. He is interested in individuals, the moral dilemmas they face and the struggles which accompany their decisions, whether for good or ill.
It's such a well-crafted book that it feels as though it were written in an earlier era when novels were built up slowly and solidly and there wasn't such a desperate need to grab the reader by the throat at the beginning of the book. Guterson's storytelling is slow and careful and his writing is characterised by an extraordinarily vivid evocation of place and character.
Here's how he describes the Counsel for the Defence
Nels Gudmundsson, the attorney who had been appointed to defend Kabuo Miyamoto, rose to cross-examine Art Moran with a slow and deliberate geriatric awkwardness, then roughly cleared the phlegm from his throat and hooked his thumbs behind his suspenders where they met their tiny black catch buttons. At seventy-nine, Nels was blind in his left eye and could distinguish only shades of light and darkness through its transient, shadowy pupil. The right, however, as if to make up for this deficiency, seemed preternaturally observant, even prescient, and as he plodded over the courtroom floorboards, advancing with a limp toward Art Moran, motes of light winked through it
And here's how he describes the beginning of the storm which provides the ever-present backdrop to the trial.
Outside the wind blew steadily from the north, driving snow against the courthouse. By noon three inches had settled on the town, a snow so ethereal it could hardly be said to have settled at all; instead it swirled like some icy fog, like the breath of ghosts, up and down Amity Harbor’s streets — powdery dust devils, frosted puffs of ivory cloud, spiraling tendrils of white smoke. By noon the smell of the sea was eviscerated, the sight of it mistily depleted, too; one’s field of vision narrowed in close, went blurry and snowbound, fuzzy and opaque, the sharp scent of frost burned in the nostrils of those who ventured out of doors. The snow flew up from their rubber boots as they struggled, heads down, toward Petersen’s Grocery. When they looked out into the whiteness of the world the wind flung it sharply at their narrowed eyes and foreshortened their view of everything.
Everything in this novel is clearly visualized and set out with a eye for salient detail. It's a compelling work of fiction that belongs, in my opinion, in the front rank of post-war American fiction.