Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Secret of the Blue Glass, by Tomiko Inui

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The Secret of the Blue Glass mixes a delightful story about a family of Little People who live on a bookshelf with the grimmer political realities of Japan during the Second World War. Delightful, magical, sombre, this is a story not to be missed.

Tomiko Inui was born in Tokyo in 1924. An award winning author of children’s books, The Secret of the Blue Glass was first published in 1959 and is the first of her books to be translated into English.

A family of Little People, Balbo and Fern, with their children Robin and Iris, live on the shelves of a little book room in the house of the Moriyama family. They were brought to Japan from England many years ago by the school teacher Miss MacLachlan, who has since returned home. The Little People draw sustenance from milk placed in a beautiful blue glass. As the years have passed, the task of filling the blue glass milk has been given to different family members. Now it’s young Yuri’s turn to take responsibility for the well being of the Little People.

Yuri starts to face difficulties in fulfilling her duties. It’s the middle of the Second World War and the once cozy family life of the Moriyamas is under serious threat. Their father, Tetsuo, has been imprisoned for his dissenting views. Yuri’s brother, Shin, has become an unthinking nationalist. Then Tokyo is evacuated and Yuri must move to the country and live a very different life. Devoted to the Little People, she takes them with her and struggles to keep them fed as rationing makes milk scarce.

In the midst of all this upheaval, the Little People have been experiencing their own adventures. When the little children, Robin and Iris, make friends with a pigeon named Yahei, they start to experience the world beyond their usual confines.

The Secret of the Blue Glass is essentially a war novel that examines how Japan was rent apart by nationalism and a desire to keep up with Western society. The book preaches that Japan lost its soul, its peace and virtue, in blindly pursuing war. The care of the Little People, the precious lives at the heart of the novel, symbolise the best of Japan, her true goodness and kindness.

What a joy Tomiko Inui’s writing is. She has the gentle, surreal playfulness of Tove Jansson, with her talking pigeons, Little People and sprites. The story is told with a beautifully measured  pace, while the characters are all engaging and fully formed. The novel’s historical thrust makes for a compelling and fascinating story grounded in real events. Reading The Secret of the Blue Glass is a very special experience indeed.

The Secret of the Blue Glass, by Tomiko Inui. Published by Pushkin Childrens. ISBN: 9781782690344 RRP:  $16.99

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