Above the East China Sea

Written by Sarah Bird
Review by Waheed Rabbani

This novel opens in 1945 as Tamiko, fifteen years old and pregnant, jumps from Okinawa Island’s Suicide Cliffs, which loom above the East China Sea. Tamiko and her sister were among the hundreds of “Lily Girls” forced to work in Japanese underground hospitals. Following the invasion by U.S. forces, Tamiko, dejected, chooses suicide over rape. At the ocean floor, while awaiting entry into the afterlife and reunification with her family—in accordance with Okinawan beliefs—Tamiko narrates her life story to her unborn child.

Years later, Luz, a teenage American military brat, stands at the edge of the same Okinawan Suicide Cliffs. Her sister, Codie, had recently died while serving in Afghanistan. In profound grief, Luz wishes to join Codie, but a friend pulls her back. Luz’s single mother is a “strictly-by-the-rules” sergeant on the U.S. base and, although half-Okinawan, has been ignored by her island family since her arrival from the States, except for a letter. Luz finds the hidden letter, which includes a photograph. Luz embarks on a mission to establish her lineage, assisted by Codie, her spiritual contact. Nonetheless, other surprising revelations await her.

Sarah Bird has constructed an extraordinary novel that not only narrates the Battle of Okinawa—from an Okinawan nurse’s perspective—but also intermingles past and present young adult lives, with entertaining banter plus a touch of the supernatural. Furthermore, Bird has brought out the Okinawan cultural aspects evocatively, and as noted in an interview with Kirkus Reviews, she also had to “explain the[ir] rules of afterlife.” The main characters’ first-person narratives, plotted with coincidences, blend their stories. The ramifications of the United States’ continuing presence in Okinawa are tactfully presented. This literary novel is a study of war and its aftermath on families, although separated by oceans, even decades later. A gratifying read. Highly recommended.