When his friends ask him out for a date to have equal numbers of boys and girls, Ryusei is not too keen. But then he meets Miwako and immediately falls for the peculiar girl who is not stunningly attractive and even overtly harsh. They soon find out that they actually have a lot in common, they spend more and more time together and Miwako befriends Ryusei’s older sister Fumi-nee. Even though they become inseparable, they are not a couple, there is something holding Miwako back from really getting attached to the student who adores her. The secret lies in her past but she isn’t ready to tell it. Yet, the moment of confession never comes, she commits suicide before she can explain herself and thus leaves Ryusei and her friends behind wondering what lead her to this drastic step.
“The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida” is a complex study of characters who carry secrets they never want to come out, but which have a deep impact on their personality and behaviour. The main plot centres around the question what lead Miwako to this drastic decision of ending her life. Ryusei, their common friend Chie and also Fumi-nee all have some bits and pieces of knowledge of her, but they cannot put them together to understand the girl. All their perspectives are presented only for the reader to get the whole picture of a deeply disturbed and suffering character.
It is not only Miwako who is interesting in her way of coping with grief and life’s strokes of fate. Ryusei and his sister became orphans at a young age leaving the older girl in charge of her brother and renouncing her own dreams to take care of him. However, the fact that she herself struggled with life and the question of her identity made Miwako open up to her and revealing her secret because she sensed that both their stories were none to be told easily.
Even though a lot of very dire topics are addressed and all the characters have to endure much from the world around them, it is all but a depressing read. For quite some time, they try to cope with their respective situation alone, but just by opening their eyes and having a bit of trust, they could see that there are people around them who are sensitive and emphatic.
Just as the characters, the novel also takes some time to fully unfold and display its strength.
The new decade has just begun when life as he knows it ends for 16-year-old Michael Watson: his mother is murdered in their home and he and his little sisters find themselves alone in Brixton. The person who always told him that people of Jamaican descend have to work two times as hard as others and should keep their head down is gone and it does not take too long until his mother’s concerns are proven right. Thousands of kilometres south in a small Nigerian village, Ngozi has to say goodbye to her mother and younger sisters, she is sent to town to work as a maid and earn money for the family. Two kids who hardly have anything in common except for the very poor and hard start in life. Yet, they are born fighters and in them, they carry the echo of decades of people who had to face a similar situation and also fought for their future.
Rosanna Amaka tells the two very different stories alternatingly, you switch from Thatcher London to chaotic Nigeria and even though the surrounds could hardly differ more, there are some parallels between Michael and Ngozi. It is obvious that their lives have to collide at one point, yet, much less obvious to answer is the question if they will succeed and escape the poor life they are born in.
I totally adored the story around Ngozi even though there is not much to adore in her life. The hardship of her family who does not know how to make ends meet, a father who ignores his kids and later the families who employ and exploit her. Born and raised in Europe, one cannot really imagine the life of a girl of her background:
“’Ngozi, as a woman there are some things we have no choice in,’ she says and gets up from her chair. (…) She goes to sleep and to cry over the innocence her daughter will lose.”
Young girls are the most vulnerable and those who can just take advantage of it. Her employer, the employer’s wife, white men coming to Africa who believe to be superior and to have the right to treat people there like goods – it is not just what they have to endure but also how they seem to accept this as a fact of life, just as Ngozi’s mother put it.
For me, it took a bit too long to bring the two parts together, admittedly, the end was also a bit too foreseeable and sweet. Each on its own works perfectly well and could have done without the other actually. Nevertheless, the novel is beautifully written and I totally enjoyed reading it.