“Two yankii sailors—enormous black men in flapping white trousers with tiny hats perched on the tops of their heads—were strolling amongst the clapboard stalls and counter of the Ueno Sunshine Market. I was quietly stalking them—Captain Takara, First Ghost Army. I’d collected half a dozen long cigarette butts already, and one of the sailors was about to fling another to the ground.”
Hiroshi Takara is one of several orphaned children fighting to survive in the ruins of Japan after the war, the fire flowers who Ben Byrne displays in this deeply felt and well-observed novel. Searching for cigarette butts, pretending to be glorious heroes, fighting and loving and sick and occasionally joyful, the children live out the tensions of the occupation, the collapse of values in a handful of moldering vegetable peelings, hope in a plum blossom.
The Americans are less sympathetic. A side plot with an American narrator concerns the occupying government’s efforts to hide the effects of the Hiroshima bombing from the world. Byrne’s graphic descriptions of the bombing and the cynical, brutal reactions of the military clash hard with the poignant lives of the children, highlighting both their frailty and their moral endurance.
The novel is not perfect. Byrne shifts narrators from chapter to chapter, and his decision to use the first person for all his characters is confusing, to say the least. But the effort to inhabit this culture at its moment of extremity is engrossing. Fire Flowers is the fruit of an American imagination at its best.