The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
Pushkin Children’s Books, London, UK, 2015.
Historical fantasy, 188 pages.
NOTE: Reviewing the 2015 translation of a 1959 Japanese novel.
Although the little people first came to Japan in the 1890s, this unique story covers the time from 1913 until World War II when they were in the care of the Moriyama family.
I finished my first read-through thinking I must review this, and immediately after wondered how I was possibly going to review it. How does one review a book they personally loved, but know won’t work for everyone?
When reviewing books for this blog, I do my best to consider the book through multiple lenses. I adored this book and sincerely hope more of this Inui’s books are translated. But… I can also see why other people might not adore it.
The hardest point here is the genre. There’s just enough emphasis on both history and fantasy to potentially annoy readers of the other genre. It’s low on magic, and the magical bits don’t get explained. It’s got a lot about an average Japanese family during WWII, but that’s never the focus.
There are some technical weaknesses. The first chapter is useless; the only point is assuring us that Yuri Moriyama survives, and drawing explicit connections to the inspiration and setting. The ending is more abrupt than US readers like, although comparable to some other works in translation. Some readers might find the fantastical aspects confusing, although I didn’t.
I believe this was originally translated into British English. The tiny family are consistently referred to as the “little people,” a term which in the U.S.A. already has two meanings. Little People are a specific popular toy, and persons with achondroplasia or other related conditions are commonly referred to as little people. Neither are related to the little people of Inui’s novel, who are faintly magical, have proportionate bodies, and live. Borrowers doesn’t quite apply and is no longer commonly known, so I don’t know what to say instead, only that it just doesn’t hold the right nuance.
Finally, although the English translation is newer, it’s important to remember this was originally published before middle grade was even a genre. One of Inui’s greatest strengths is that the right adult could easily read and enjoy this, so it works well as a family read aloud with discussion and context provided for the difficult parts. But the pacing, characterization, and plot are all suited to historical readers.
I have to mention the excellent design. The cover didn’t catch my eye at first; after reading I must admit it perfectly encapsulates the disparate points of this book – vintage but in new translation, historical fiction, and a hint of magic. Equal attention is paid to the interior, with chapter headers in the shape of the blue glass, with a different cutout silhouette each time. This book has nice thick pages, eye-catching orange endpapers, and a wrap-around cover for marking your place. The high quality made for a pleasing reading experience.
For me personally, this was one of the most successful historical fantasies I’ve ever read. The focus on the little family made the slog through ever darker wartime events feel lighter, while the historical setting added tension over their survival to an otherwise light plot. The balance of these two elements was remarkable. I learned a lot of little details about WWII and Japanese culture in a memorable way.
The content warnings involve necessary spoilers. As one would expect in a war novel, deaths and other serious health conditions occur. The father is arrested and branded a traitor for being against the war. Yuri’s brothers have opposite reactions to this, one becoming strongly nationalist pro-military, and the other agreeing with their father, but still ironically dying in the war. Yuri faces some bullying and rather extreme shunning after her brother is careless about his anti-war remarks on a visit, and struggles to overcome it.
Final spoilery paragraph. How Yuri learns about her brother is particularly distressing although it might be period-accurate. The family simply never mentions him (nor her father being in mortal peril) until she suddenly learns that he’s not MIA, he died. The ending and other transitions also tend to be abrupt. Also, a minor point, but it seemed odd that Toko and Tatsuo were cousins and then got married. I understand the plot reasons, but still.
Adults should be aware that Granny Oto is blind. Yuri and the little family initially are afraid of her and there’s a weird subplot where they seem almost to not believe she’s blind because she continues to work. She and Yuri eventually forge a close bond but the misconceptions are never directly called out.
Although I love this book, I wouldn’t recommend it for sensitive or picky readers. The combination of gentle, low-key fantasy with wartime reality worked well for me, but won’t for everyone.
Ultimately, for this book to give full enjoyment, one should not mind fantasy and historical fiction combined, be well read in earlier children’s literature, have basic understanding of Japan’s involvement in WWII, be open to slow, low-action reads, and able to handle intense content. Recommended with caveat.