In an old woman’s room, a newborn cries. Outside, a younger woman hesitates. She is the caretaker not for the newborn, but for the old woman. Each of the three has secrets, even the newborn. Each is hiding a deep trauma. None of the three really belongs in Japan. And yet their stories converge there, in an ultra-modern apartment in the richest part of Tokyo, in a future all too believably near.
The old woman is nearing one hundred years old, no longer unusual in a greying population, but certainly still an accomplishment for a woman who has refused almost all medical treatments involving invasive technologies. Seeming to survive largely on grit, Sayoko is not a typical Japanese mother. Her single son Itou is successful in all the proper ways, but they exist in an uneasy détente made possible by his extensive absences. In part to aid his mother, but also to advance his own career, he obtains special dispensation to acquire a new android to help care for her.
This fantastically advanced android is the newborn, with emotional skills that calibrate by shifting rapidly through the human stages of development. Hiro, as he names himself, is a Taiwanese prototype who may or may not be violating the laws put in place to halt the production of AI. Many countries in this near-future world, including Japan, fear emergent consciousness. Hiro’s very existence is a calculated risk, but all the calculations were made without accounting for Hiro’s capacity for thought or emotion.
And Angelica, the middle-aged nurse hired to care for Sayoko, is a Filipina in Japan on a work visa, trying valiantly to make it in a xenophobic country that resents its need for her skills. She herself is not eager to stay, but going home without a large sum of money means dealing with the gangsters who hold her travel debts—and her brother’s. Her precarious position is further threatened by Hiro’s arrival, which sets off a chain of events that binds these three disparate generations together.
This setup on its own is a potent combination of competing needs, always a good indicator of meaningful drama. But there is so much more packed into Plum Rains than a tense, almost claustrophobic tale of a homebound woman and her competing caretakers. This is a book about the traumas that bind them rather than the differences that keep them apart. Plum Rains is an apt title: rather than the fleeting mono no aware evoked by the cherry blossoms in spring, it references the plum-flower viewing in winter, a far more sedate and reflective affair. Spring joys are fleeting; winter wounds ache and cannot fade, no matter how much the characters want to leave the past behind.
Angelica’s past is never concealed from the reader, although she strives valiantly to hide it from those around her (and, as much as possible, herself as well). After a typhoon, she waited for days in the debris of her house, immobilized in the dark, with the corpses of her family all around her, waiting for her brother to bring help. They were the only two to survive, but because they were too young to look after one another, Angelica was also separated from him and sent to live in an orphanage. Without family or connections, she took money from loan sharks to get an education and a job abroad. Physical travel, though, is a poor substitute for actual progress, and she leaves not one of her problems truly behind. Instead, she only compounds her loss with culture shock, and the homesickness leaves her fretful and frustratingly unwilling to ask for help. She has learned not to be vulnerable, yet even an explanation of her simplest tasks might ease her burden: Sayako thinks her frivolous for being on her phone all the time, never realizing that Angelica is using an app to study kanji for her Japanese proficiency exams.
Romano-Lax has an unquenchable empathy for her characters, even when they act against their own interests or badly toward one another. We know from the beginning that Angelica’s snappishness and refusal to accept help is the result of her PTSD, and so are not unsympathetic. Sayoko’s story, however, is revealed more slowly. We could hate her for cultivating her arrogance with such sullen determination. But instead Romano-Lax helps us understand her attitude not as spiteful, but as the natural consequence of years of imposed silence. She has never been allowed to speak; her story, then, bursts out through whatever medium she can manage. What seems like a petty refusal to wear a medical bracelet is, when Sayoko’s full story is revealed, a plaintive cry and a brave defiance all at once. The writing is so subtle, so effortless, that your heart doesn't break so much as quietly dissolve into tears: here are three people bearing what cannot be borne, burying that paradox with incomplete repression.
Angelica's plight is so masterfully wrought that I felt empathy for her even in the smallest of details. When she is taking down a frame from her employer's wall and struggles with the weight, my heart leapt into my mouth as though she were fighting off a dozen enemies. In many ways, that was what she was doing, even though the action was simple: if she had dropped the frame, her precarious employment might be terminated; her debts to mobsters would go into default; her brother might be held accountable for her failure. The danger was so palpable that when the frame was safely tucked away, I felt as much relief as if she had escaped a burning building filled with serial killers.
And that was just a few paragraphs in the middle of the book. There are other marvels of the mundane, too: a moment of hard-won acceptance expressed through a conversation about bath temperatures (pp. 290-291), spiritual fulfillment accomplished with an eyebrow pencil (p. 369), and a chance encounter with a busker sparking Hiro’s recognition of his own humanity (p. 193). Romano-Lax understands the subtle art of letting action carry her emotional narrative forward, even when her characters’ actions are circumscribed by their health or their citizenship.
The emotional climax of all this is a birthday party, one of the most brutal and resonant scenes I've read in recent memory. The celebratory veneer provides some truly cutting irony: as unspeakable truths are spoken, many of the guests react as though they are having their fun spoiled. They can no longer eat cake and pretend things are lovely. They have to look at something ugly, something which is both historic and, in the way of trauma, irrevocably present—and in which they are all complicit. And they have to look because the hundred-year lifespan they are there to celebrate necessarily encompasses not just the traumas of the individual, but the traumas of a nation.
The persistence of memories that would otherwise be forgotten, a living reproach that cannot be easily ignored: Sayoko’s secrets have endured and outlived all attempts to repress them. Angelica’s secrets, on the other hand, have also survived not time but distance. She is the reproach of a poorer nation to a richer one, a Filipina whose community was devastated by a typhoon and who barely lived to tell of further deprivations of education and opportunity. Japan did not want to help her until she completed her training as a nurse, and then only grudgingly. The party guests cannot ignore her for an entirely different reason: she is a foreigner, and a young one at that. In a greying society, Angelica is the future they do not want, in part because she will carry forward the stories they do not want to tell. But none will so fundamentally challenge the stories that are and are not told as Hiro. Hiro will remember Sayoko's secrets. He will remember Angelica's traumas. Centenarians and foreigners, not tech geniuses, are the harbingers of the singularity, since androids, too, are fundamentally Other—and they have long memories.
Plum Rains is, on the individual level, about accepting the traumas we cannot change. But on a larger level, it's a book about the tension between acceptance and resignation. Sayoko remarks, “We can’t go back, can we?” when confronted with the ugly truth that poor miners will die to get the materials necessary for the production of androids like Hiro (p. 243). Humanity is not going to return to older ways, even if it means destroying the earth and condemning thousands of vulnerable people to slow death. Its nature—lopsided and self-defeating as it may be—is progress.
What the androids’ nature will be, meanwhile, is not yet determined, but one thing becomes clear: as Hiro so eloquently demonstrates, robots aren't going to save Japan and they certainly aren't going to save humanity. The future isn't bright. But it isn't apocalyptic, either. Humanity just isn't important enough to merit such dramatic ends. We are just one species, remarkable in some ways but ultimately doomed, and on a broad level we have to come to terms with that, whether it means acceptance or resignation. Humans must accept—or resign ourselves—to being eclipsed by our cybernetic children. We must accept—or resign ourselves—to the horrors we have actively caused or passively perpetuated.
I like that Romano-Lax did not try to force any kind of parallelism between Hiro’s, Sayoko’s, and Angelica’s traumas. Their lives have been very different, and the novel’s capacity to recognize grief despite difference rather than because of contrived literary circumstance really makes the book resonate. There is no reason, on the surface, for a bond to grow between people so Other to each other. And yet they each find deep solace and even restitution because of the bonds they can form. In order to do so, of course, they have to learn to tell stories. This is where Hiro first comes into his own, his ingenuous “newborn” personality demanding truth in a way that adults find hard to resist.
Plum Rains makes a beautiful space in the gulf between a trauma suffered and a trauma expressed, because we suffocate and mourn and despair with the characters before we know what ails them. This is why, when Angelica forces the words of her story out into the open, we already know they are both truthful and incomplete. They capture physical realities but not emotional landscapes. “I was trapped under a building for days after a typhoon” is frightening enough, but we already know that it's more than that. The panic attacks, the flashbacks, and the nightmares are already achingly clear to us. Words are inadequate but words are necessary. It’s this irony that drives the book forward. You have to talk in order to get to the place where you don’t have to say anything.
The other great irony is that Angelica must care for herself in order to most fully provide care to Sayoko. Angelica is very bad at taking care of herself. As a caretaker, she puts her patient before herself. As a worker in a grim economy, she puts her boss before herself. And as a foreigner, she tries to assimilate her host country’s culture, leaving (or trying to leave) her own stories behind. But by depriving Sayoko of those painful realities, she stunts any opportunity for mutual support or empathy. By assuming that Sayoko cannot handle the stress, she inhibits Sayoko from feeling useful and ignores the fact that Sayoko has her own stressors hidden in the past. Their relationship only flowers when they can see one another—and themselves—as equals.
Seeing themselves as worthy is especially noteworthy, because Romano-Lax nails the sense of survivors feeling in many ways broken or inadequate. It is easier, sometimes, to lean into that brokenness rather than demanding that others hear and heal you, easier to help others than to acknowledge that you yourself need help. But as Hiro points out:
I have not seen you fight for everything you require ... Either you both have insight I lack...or you are merely demonstrating why human dominion is nearing its end ... Humans are humankind’s own worst enemy. Nature makes no room for the survival of a species that is so self-defeating, at every scale. As a group, you spoil your ecological systems and undermine your institutions. As individuals, you sabotage your own beneficial desires. (pp. 354-6)
Speaking through Hiro, who is repeatedly denied even basic personhood, Romano-Lax avoids advocating for hedonism or narcissism. Instead, she champions the worth of the dispossessed. The elderly, the foreigner, the non-human, the poor, the different: Romano-Lax makes the desires of the have-nots as worthy as those of the haves.
The novel ends with two epilogues, which present wildly different although tenuously related endings to Angelica's story. I confess that I was initially baffled by them, and by their rather strange “gotcha” moment; but the more I thought about them, the more I realized that this story is about creating the narratives that can be borne. Who gets to raise the next generation? Who gets to control the narrative they hear? There are in these epilogues first the easy fantasy and then the hard reality, in quick succession. The fantasy is gentle: it’s more of the same life each character has been living, albeit a little easier. Here, the truth gets smoothed out like an unseemly wrinkle, and everyone is rewarded for playing along. I must admit I bought into it; I wanted some measure of happiness for the characters. But I should have known better. Happiness doesn’t arise from resignation. The second epilogue’s “gotcha” is there to drive home one last time that the state and the majority cannot provide fulfilment. Angelica, Hiro, and Sayoko, each in their own way, find a way to take it for themselves.