The Color of Air: A Novel

Written by Gail Tsukiyama
Review by Ellen Jaquette

On November 21, 1935, Mauna Loa in Hawaii erupted. Smoked filled the sky, and lava flowed from the volcano towards the town of Hilo at a rate of about one mile a day. Residents, waiting to see if they should evacuate, collectively held their breathe until the lava flow stopped, leaving the town and its diverse residents safe just in time to celebrate Christmas Day.

It is with this historical backdrop we meet the fictional residents of the Big Island: first is the absent Mariko Abe, who has recently passed away. Her son Daniel returns to Hilo just as Mauna Loa erupts, coming back home after practicing medicine in Chicago. Welcoming him back are Mariko’s companion, Koji, and her friend, Nori. Both Koji and Nori, along with a larger cast of characters from the Big Island, are trying to understand their place in the community with Mariko gone and the chaos of the eruption making everything seemingly changed.

The story jumps between these perspectives, showing a wide range of insight and experiences that weave together to create a strong sense of community and place. Tsukiyama is able to bring the political through the personal, especially regarding Hawaii’s history of immigrant indentured laborers, and her writing of the island’s lush landscape fills the reader’s vision, drawing you closer to the inner perspectives of these characters’ lives. The result is a satisfying escape to a time and place long past, but feeling very real, interconnected, and meaningful to the present day.