American Fuji
by Sara Backer

Berkeley Trade, New York, 2009. ISBN 978-0-425-23009-1.
Reviewed by Becca Taylor
Posted on 11/03/2009

Fiction: Mainstream

In American Fuji, Sara Backer's debut novel, we meet two lonely souls in search of their individual truths. Gaby is an American expatriot living and working in Japan. She just got a new job at a fantasy-funeral company run by an eccentric man who may or may not be involved in the Japanese mafia, after being unexpectedly fired from her job as professor at Shizuoka University. Gaby is still reeling from her dismissal and settling into her new job when she is assigned to help Alex Thorn, an American author. For over a year Alex has been trying, unsuccessfully, to find out the details surrounding his teenaged son's death in Japan. Because Gaby is the only person in her company who speaks English, she and Alex are thrown together trying to solve his mystery while navigating the often hidden intricacies of Japanese culture. Japan is a culture where the unspoken carries as much, if not more, weight than what is actually spoken.

Backer's writing is generally crisp and witty, although her extensive descriptions of Japanese culture and habits sometimes slow the pace of the story. Still, her skill at using dialogue to push the plot forward keeps the story interesting and ultimately satisfying. Each of her characters has an integral impact on the story and adds important depth and humor to the protagonists' journey. Gaby's desire for discretion and anonymity and Alex's need to learn about the circumstances of his son's death lead to several sketchy situations that are in turn uncomfortable, funny, troubling, dangerous, or sad. In the end, both Gaby and Alex find truth and closure, even if it isn't what they expected or hoped for.

Sara Backer was the first American and first woman to serve as a visiting professor at Japan's national Shizuoka University from 1990-1993. American Fuji was a book club pick of the Honolulu Advertiser and a nominee for the Kiriyama Prize. Backer, a Djerassi Program artist in residence in 1999, is also a poet whose work has appeared in numerous literary magazines including Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest, and Slant. She has taught creative writing at conferences for Cuesta College, Maui Literary Circles, and Northeast Cultural Cooperative. She currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and lives in the woods in New Hampshire. Visit her web site.

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