There is nothing more beautiful in our material world than the book. -Patti Smith
As I pulled the shrink-wrap from Subduction, I spoke aloud to the mailbox : "Oh, I hope the story is as interesting as this book is beautiful!" I held in my hands A Book. The perfect rectangle of a thing with sharp, unbent corners; a silky hard cover with a softness, a smoothness that my fingertips glided right over. The title, Subduction, and the shared name of the writer and of the artist/book designer, Shimoda, are paired together boldly across the lower portion of the cover underneath an illustrated rendering of...what? A bird flying from sunlit clouds over the sea? A symbol of freedom? A central image from the story? Simple yet not simple, the cover alone is worth framing.
The pages are of sturdy paper, a pleasure to the touch. Each chapter contains artwork that reflects a moment from the story, a purposeful swirl of black ink over a photographed image or accompanying swirl of brick red on a white page, the back of which is fully red, the title of the image in white text along the bottom. The effect of the white edges of the pages interspersed with the thinner red lines is lovely.
Before reading the first page, I spent a good deal of time looking at the book, poring over the images and inspecting the 16-page insert, with watercolor illustrations, of the traditional Japanese folktale "Kashima and the Giant Catfish." But, finally, my curiosity couldn't wait any longer. I still wondered and hoped...
Will the story be as interesting as the book is beautiful?
Subduction is the tale of Endo, a young Japanese doctor who, taking the fall for a patient's untimely death, has been forced into professional exile on the tiny island of Marui-jima. The island is subject to frequent earthquakes and the government has ordered the residents to leave, but a handful of elderly islanders refuses to evacuate. Endo discovers, much to his relief, that there are two other outsiders on the Island. Aki is a seismologist researching his theories about earthquake prediction, and Mari is a documentary filmmaker hoping to understand why the residents refuse to leave. The islanders seem to trust Mari, but they believe Endo and Aki are government agents intent on enforcing the evacuation orders.
Endo feels the islanders' hostility from his first moment on the Marui-jima, and it increases by the day. He represents the modern world to them, a world lacking in tradition and loyalty, one that threatens their way of life. Earthquakes, struggle, and independence are much more preferable to them than government promises of safety and well-being. What Endo, Aki, and Mari first take to be the islanders' plain stubbornness is much more complicated than they imagine: "'It comes down to what is the meaning of a life,'" says Yoshi, the only islander who will talk freely to Aki and Endo. "'I'm not referring to the meaning of life, but a life.'"
The lives of the islanders, as well as those of Endo, Aki, and Mari, are all measured by defining moments, by keystone stories that have shaped who they are at their very core. While Endo is spending his time drinking and trying to stave off boredom, Mari is collecting these stories and trying to make sense of how the individual lives of the islanders connect them to one another so tightly that they're willing to face earthquakes rather than be separated. Mari walks comfortably among the residents while Endo has run-ins with the old fishermen and Aki's equipment is sabatoged. Finally, shaken from his complacency by increasingly violent attacks against him and an unexplained death on the island, Endo knows he must fit the pieces of the puzzle together before it's too late.
Is the story as interesting as the book is beautiful? Yes, indeed it is. I read it after finishing a novel that I liked, but that was quite dense and "talky." Subduction is a tale, and I wanted a tale. A tale of mystery and suspense and beauty and multiple layers. You can read it as a straight mystery but, at the same time, this novel touches on so many facets of what makes us who we are. It makes us think about how how place defines us, how our own keystone stories shape us, how our community ties can both hurt and strengthen us, how we are alone and together in the choices we sometimes make.
Yes, Subduction is the whole package. It's a beautiful thing.
(You can read an excerpt from Subduction here and see the gallery of images from Subduction here.)