Picking Bones From Ash – Book Review

My mother always told me that there is only one way a woman can be truly safe in this world. And that is to be fiercely, unarguably, and masterfully talented. – from Picking Bones From Ash, page 1 –

“When you were a girl growing up in San Francisco, did you hear the mothers of your classmates begin their sentences with ‘My husband thinks?’ I hear that all the time. ‘My husband thinks.’ I want to ask these women, what do you think? So many times, they don’t even know. In this house, no one ever needs to worry about what a husband thinks. That is what it means to be talented.” – from Picking Bones From Ash, page 148 –

Satomi is being raised by her single mother, Atsuko,  in a tiny northern Japanese town surrounded by a bamboo forest. Atsuko works long days to provide for her only daughter, making sure Satomi’s talent as a pianist is nurtured and trained. When eventually Atsuko marries a man with two daughters, Satomi is sent away to a school where her musical gifts can grow and flourish. Talent is everything, and Atsuko discourages Satomi from relationships with boys who might turn her away from her goals to be a musician. But when Atsuko dies unexpectedly, Satomi’s path is uncertain…especially when she becomes involved with an arts dealer named Timothy Snowden and his friend, Francois.

Years later, Satomi’s daughter Rumi is growing up in San Francisco without her mother. When one day Rumi is visited by a ghost she believes must be Satomi, she decides to journey to Japan to uncover the mystery of her family’s past.

Picking Bones From Ash is a multi-generational story of three women – Atsuko, Satomi and Rumi. None of them are traditional Japanese women. Instead, they defy convention – Atsuko in raising her daughter without a father, Satomi for her gift of music, and Rumi for her extraordinary abilities in the world of Asian antiques. Each daughter struggles to understand and know her mother. Ultimately, what connects them is their spiritual history.

Marie Mutsuki Mockett captures the ethereal beauty of Japan with vivid descriptions of temples and landscape. A strong theme is that of the after life and the traditions which surround death.

I had missed my mother’s cremation and so had not been present when Mineko, Chieko, and the rest of their family had stood around her still hot remains to remove her bones from the ash. They would have used chop sticks to do this, carefully culling only the most essential parts of her body and placing them in an urn, which was then set inside a box. – from Picking Bones From Ash, page 98 –

Mockett takes the reader from Japan to the United States and back again by alternating her points of view and moving back and forth in time. Part mystery, part ghost story and part family saga, the novel covers a lot of ground. I enjoyed the exploration of womens’ roles in Japanese society as well as the cultural diversity found in the art of Japan as well as its religions.

Although Mockett is adept at setting scene and plot, I felt there was something missing in her characterizations. Both Satomi and Rumi are aloof and lack emotional depth. Satomi, especially, was not altogether likable. I wanted to see beneath their cool exteriors and understand their motivations better.

At one point in the novel, two of the characters are discussing a piece of artwork which became beautiful only when it was lowered onto a new mounting. One of the characters comments: “It matters how things are framed.” And I would agree. Ultimately, I found the novel to be a subtle and elegant glimpse into Japanese culture because of how the novel was constructed or framed – moving in and out of the spiritual essence of a society, providing glimpses into character through their relationships with each other and the society they live in.  By framing her novel this way, Mockett creates a dream-like story that hovers on the edges of reality.

Readers wishing to immerse themselves into the sights, sounds, and culture of Japan will enjoy this novel.


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I read this book as part of BOOK CLUB and as such, received the novel from the publisher. Readers wishing to join in the discussion of Picking Bones From Ash should visit Nicole’s blog on March 22nd.

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  1. I wonder if the author kept the characters aloof like that because of the formality of their society. The book does sound interesting.

  2. This does sound like a rather engaging and interesting story, so it’s curious that the characters lacked a certain depth. I think the quote you provided really hooked me in and made me want to seek out this one, but I will be going into it forewarned that I may have trouble connecting to some of the characters. Very perceptive and thoughtful review. Thanks!

    • Wendy on March 28, 2011 at 06:41

    Kathy: Yes, I wondered if the aloofness of the characters was a cultural thing – but, it just didn’t work for me.

    Heather: Glad you enjoyed the review – some of the readers in the discussion really loved this book and didn’t have the same issues with it that I did – so I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.

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