I tend to enjoy novels that flash back and forth from past to present, and this novel was no different (though "present" is 1986). The story features Henry, a Chinese man in his fifties who lives in Seattle. The bulk of the events take place in the early 1940's during the heart of WWII, when Henry was only twelve. His Chinese parents enact several harsh rules for their son: sending him to an American school where he's beaten and teased for being Chinese, insisting he speak to them only in English even though they only understand Mandarin, and, most painful of all, shunning him for his friendship with the only other student of color at his school, a Japanese girl named Keiko.
The friendship between Henry and Keiko was the highlight of the novel for me. They're both so sweet and wise, Henry with his love of jazz and Keiko with her sketch pad, helping each other through a tumultuous time. If you're a good historian, you might realize this time was when the American government forced Japanese families to live in internment camps. It was horrifying to watch Keiko's American family forced to live in barracks when Keiko doesn't even know how to speak Japanese. Their homes and businesses were lost, as well as family photographs, possessions, and heirlooms. Many Chinese hated the Japanese then, and to watch the internment through Henry's eyes was poignant and powerful.
I liked the secondary characters, particularly Sheldon the jazz player. A Black man, Sheldon understands the discrimination facing the kids quite well. Henry's father is a very complex man. Most of the book I hated him but in the end he struck me as very sad. He missed out on his wonderful son. The plot was excellent and the writing smooth. My only criticism was that the story wasn't as emotionally gripping as it could have been. I'm not sure what was missing for me, but I was seeking a little more of an emotional punch.
I agree this is an impressive debut by Jamie Ford, and I recommend it strongly.