Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
The novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford begins in 1986, as we meet Henry Lee of Seattle, a recent widower who has taken early retirement.
He has one child, a son Marty, who is a chemistry major at the University of Seattle, living in residence, and about to graduate with top marks. Henry cared for his wife, Edith, through a long illness before her death. He finds himself now with too much time on his hands and a restlessness he doesn’t know what to do with.
Walking home one day Henry finds himself in a crowd around the Panama Hotel. This hotel was once a rather grand hotel, at the intersection of the Chinese and Japanese areas of Seattle, in the days before the Second World War. Since then it has been closed up and is only now being renovated and restored by a new owner. On this day she has made a discovery – there are suitcases and boxes found in the hotel basement, left in storage by their Japanese owners, when they were removed from Seattle and sent to internment camps. Now, 44 years later, these possessions are a sort of time capsule to another world. To another world, and another time - 1942.
Henry remembers 1942 well, he was then a young teenager. Teenagers in 1942 were not what they are now – they were truly young adults, and this was war time. The bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States firmly into the war, and the lives of Japanese citizens of the United States were changed forever. Henry, Chinese-American and Keiko, Japanese-American, are scholarship students at an otherwise all white school. They experience prejudice and bullying – and naturally spend time together, becoming fast friends. Henry’s family does not approve, though Keiko’s parents are pleased that their daughter has such a fine friend.
Now, in 1986, coming home from the Panama Hotel, Henry looks at his old school year book and wonders about Keiko and thinks of his life during those years. How many of us do the same, wonder what ever happened to our childhood friends and wonder, also, about the person we were then, and the person we are now?
As the story moves seamlessly back and forth from 1942 to 1986, we come to know both Henry the young man, and Henry as a somewhat weary older man. We also get to know Henry’s son, and their relationship as it changes to that of two adult men – still father and son, but with a more mature outlook on both sides. The relationship between Henry and Marty, is in stark contrast to the relationship that Henry had with his own father.
Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a lovely story of family – connection and forgiveness, or at the very least understanding what cannot be forgiven. The novel is rich in the culture of the Chinese immigrants – I loved the funeral custom of giving out candy to the mourners, so that “everyone leaving would taste sweetness – not bitter” – along with a quarter “for buying more candy on the way home – a traditional token of lasting life and enduring happiness”. And that is perhaps why reading this novel is such a pleasure – it is the bitter and sweet of the lives of these characters as they re-visit the past and move into whatever it is that the future will bring.