cover image The Floating World

The Floating World

Cynthia Kadohata. Viking Books, $17.95 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-670-82680-3

In her first book, Kadohata works wonders in evoking the mysterious balance, imperfectly held, of a Japanese-American family drifting apprehensively during the 1950s in ``ukiyo ,'' a ``floating world'' of menial jobs and humble yet hopeful upward mobility pursued at the edges of an enchanted but exclusive American normalcy. Twelve-year-old Olivia, the first-person narrator, is a storyteller by temperament and heredity: her sharp-tongued, hot-tempered grandmother, who in her heyday had three husbands and seven lovers, ``owned a valise in which she carried all her possessions, but the stories she told were also possessions.'' Intelligent, impish, perpetually dislocated--``I wanted to stay where we were--where I didn't know anyone and no one knew me''--Olivia soon comes into possession of tales of her own: ``I sort of salivated inside whenever I met someone new. I was nosy, and I thought new people might tell me interesting things.'' Her shrewd roadside appraisals as the family travels from the Pacific Northwest to Arkansas in search of employment (hard to come by for Japanese at that time), and, years later, when Olivia sets out on her own for Los Angeles, range from a delicate appreciation of the American landscape to a frank appetite for the crasser curios of a foreign culture. With equal sympathy, Olivia turns her eye inward on her own family, offering an artless, prescient running commentary that never strains in the pursuit. In striking and keeping the tone of Olivia's voice, a bewitching composite of American brashness and expatriate otherness, Kadohata achieves perfect pitch inconspicuously, telling of the lonely and comic immigrant experience of ``moving from the hard life just past to the life, maybe harder, to come.'' (July)