Lois-AnnYamanaka has created a fascinating melding of reality and the spirit world as her protagonist wrestles with lost loved ones and her connection to the living, the past fragmented by the loss of her beloved sisters and shaped by lonely years of abandonment by her family.
Only one sister of three survives her isolation in a TB hospital-orphanage in the secluded Kalihi Valley in Hawaii in the early 1900s. To avoid infecting their family, one after another is banished, five-year old Leah, then Aki, then Anah. Leah is terrified; Aki is angry. Only Anah will survive, left alone in a place where there is little solace and much despair.
The small girls reach from beyond the grave to Anah, unwilling to be left behind. Left to fend for herself in an unfriendly environment, Anah cannot resist the companionship of her sisters. Leah calls out to Anah; Aki curses her and attacks physically at night, merciless; and Seth, a boy who died before they came, waits for them all.
Their Hawaiian mother is mad with grief, unable to forget the daughters she has sent away, and their Portuguese father demands the worthless daughters be put aside for more sons. Ignoring the promises they have made, the family never visits the abandoned girls, who wait week after week for visitors, only to be disappointed.
Anah endures the relentless jibes of Sister Bernadine, a bitter woman with a caustic tongue, at the orphanage, her only solace Leah, Aki and Seth. Seth’s older brother, Ezroh, is the vehicle of Anah’s salvation; it is he who cures her from the cuts and bruises inflicted by Aki that no one at the orphanage can explain, he who offers unconditional love.
On her eighteenth birthday, Anah is finally released. She marries Ezroh and bears four daughters. Cruel words follow beyond the orphanage, this time from Ezroh’s Portuguese aunt, bitter remarks that infect the difficult births of Anah’s daughters: Hosanah, the first-born, disfigured by a careless midwife; Elizabeth, thought slow when she refuses to speak; Tori, a perfect replica of Anah’s beautiful mother; and the frail but spirited Miriam who fights for life against all odds.
Anah yearns for a lost mother and the sisters she could not save but recovers her connection to family through her daughters. Still her dead siblings follow everywhere, repeating the curse they have put on their sister. The price of freedom is high, but Anah must eventually make peace with the dead and claim her place in the world of the living, though she never imagines how staggering this price will be.
In lyrical prose, Anah’s life is painted in the bright red blood of tuberculosis and childbirth, Leah’s yellow dress, the dark, dank closets of the orphanage, and the blue horizon of her marriage to Ezroh. Yamanaka weaves truth from dreams, breathing life into the spirit world through a girl who becomes a woman and mother who embraces all, joy, pain and love, her heart the repository of all their hopes.