ABOVE THE EAST CHINA SEA
by Sarah Bird
Published in 2014 by Knopf.
Reviewed by Tony Burnett
Self-described mid-list literary novelist Sarah Bird raised the bar with her most recent release, Above the East China Sea. The novel revolves around two families from different cultures separated by more than a half century. The two families are similar in that they have two sisters (who are close), a strong mother figure, and an almost invisible father figure. The setting is Okinawa, Japan where Bird spent some of her formative years. The complex novel begins with the two families’ separate stories and slowly weaves the stories together until the fascinating and improbable ending. The novel relies heavily on the spiritual lives of the Okinawan people.
Above the East China Sea is not your standard summer beach read. To fully appreciate the book requires acceptance of uncommon mores and a cultural understanding that we Americans are not known for. That being said, I would consider this one of the premier novels of the year. If you appreciate a complex literary journey that has the ability to open your understanding of a world that you may not be familiar with, this is a novel for you. If you like political intrigue or religious tension, this is the novel for you. If you like superbly beautiful writing that can carry all five of your senses into a place you’ve never experienced, this is the novel for you.
Having read and enjoyed previous books by Sarah Bird I can honestly say that this is far and above her best effort yet and is likely to propel her above the mid-list literary writer into the company of such writers as Joan Didion and Ann Patchett. Her life may never be the same having written this book, and after reading Above the East China Sea, your life will never be the same.
Tony Burnett is an author, poet and journalist living in rural Milam county. He serves as a Director at the Writers’ League of Texas.