As the banner above states, I am a history geek—a really, really, big history geek. And while I hesitate to say World War II is my ‘favourite’ historical period (that just seems far too cheerful a word for a time shrouded in so many horrors), it is probably the historical period I find the most fascinating. Part of the reason for this is because there was just so much going on. Obviously, we know about Hitler and Germany and the war in Europe, but there was also the Spanish Civil War, the war in the Pacific, the Japanese occupation of China and other South East Asian countries. And just so much more I’d be here forever if I tried to list every single story of heartache and triumph that characterised World War II in both the lead-up and the war itself.
Now, if you’re wondering why I’m rattling on about World War II, it’s because Karin Tanabe’s The Diplomat’s Daughter is one of the best World War II novels I’ve read in a really long time.
Divided into three parts, and told from three separate third-person points of view, The Diplomat’s Daughter follows the stories of Emi Kato, the daughter of a Japanese diplomat, caught in America after the attack on Pearl Harbor; Christian Lange, the American son of wealthy German immigrants who are accused and convicted of Nazi collaboration; and Leo Hartmann, a Jewish boy living happily in 1930s Austria until Nazi occupation and the events of Kristallnacht force his family to flee to Shanghai.
Though the book spans the years from 1937 to 1946, it is not told chronologically. After a brief prologue, we start instead in 1943 with the arrest of Christian’s parents, then backtrack to 1940 to Emi’s arrival and life in Washington D.C.—a rude awakening for a girl used to the glitz and glam of European cities like London and Vienna. Part one of the book continues to alternate between Christian and Emi, with their timelines eventually meeting up in Crystal City, an internment camp in Texas for Japanese, German and Italian detainees (most of whom are second or third generation American citizens) determined enemies of the United States.
It is here that a romance between the pair blossoms, only to be cut short when Emi and her mother are repatriated to Japan.
Part two turns back the clock completely to 1930s Vienna, where Emi is living while her father is posted there as a diplomat. It is here that she meets and falls in love with Leo—who we readers have so far only heard about through Emi’s wistful thoughts. But their romance is complicated by the ever-increasing tensions in Austria and the horrible treatment of the Jewish population.
In part three we are back in the 1940s, where Emi has returned to Japan, Leo and his family are in Shanghai and Christian has joined the US Army—both as a means of escaping repatriation to Germany and in the hopes of somehow finding Emi.
So—that is the briefest, most basic summary I can give without spoiling the entire story. And now to my review:
Through taking her story across so many years and three different continents, Tanabe has managed to demonstrate the sheer scope that was World War II, yet still keep this novel concise and thoroughly engaging. The story touches on aspects of the war that have not been all that thoroughly explored in either literature of film—namely the American internment camps and the Japanese occupation of China, which I found particularly interesting as told through the eyes of Leo, a foreigner in Shanghai.
Emi’s time back in Japan was also very enlightening, touching on how tightly controlled information was, and how most of the population continued to starve while the government stubbornly refused to surrender, even after VE Day.
Tanabe’s writing is stunning, her words expertly painting scenes from a long-gone time period and invoking images that will pull at your heart. The second and third parts of the novel are particularly littered with heart-wrenching scenes that truly expose the horrors of this war.
In spite of what the back cover blurb (and my short synopsis above) might lead people to believe, this isn’t some kind of epic war-time love triangle. For the bulk of the novel the three characters are in three separate countries, so don’t be expecting any bar brawls or pistols at dawn or the like. There is romance, yes, but this is really a story of survival above anything else.
The Diplomat’s Daughter was my first Karin Tanabe book, but it will most definitely not be my last.
I listened to the audiobook of The Diplomat’s Daughter, and while I’m not letting my listening experience affect my review of the story, I have a couple of thoughts on the audio that I wanted to put in.
It was a very entertaining listen and the narrators each did a really excellent job (I would give the performance 4 stars), however there were a couple of things that were just really odd and I need to mention them because they’re driving me crazy!
Firstly—while all three narrators were quite good, I have no idea why three narrators were necessary. The book is told in third person so surely one narrator would suffice? This is something I’ve noticed Simon & Schuster do often. It’s weird but, oh well, if they want to spend the money on extra narrators so be it.
Secondly—for some strange reason in both Emi’s and Leo’s chapters the only people who have accents are Emi (British because of her education in London), Emi’s parents (both Japanese), Claire (an absolutely appalling Australian accent) and Jin (British from education at a British school). Everyone else (German, Austrian, Russian, Polish, even other Japanese people—and I do mean Japanese people fro Japan, not the Japanese-Americans in the internment camp) spoke with an American accent. It was so weird. It’s hard to say whether Christian’s chapters would have gone the same route because I really can’t remember him coming into contact with anyone who was supposed to have a foreign accent, except his mother who did sound German and Emi who sounded British.
Anyway, despite this it was a very entertaining listen, just very odd.