#326 ~ Picking Bones from Ash

Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Published by: Graywolf Press

Published on: February 2011

Page Count: 320

Genre: Fiction

My Reading Format: Review copy sent to me to participate in Book Club

Available Formats: Hardcover, paperback, eBook

Note: Readers may have difficulty with the second half of the novel due to the way in which Satomi and Rumi are separated. This didn’t bother me, but it was a huge part of our Book Club discussion and I think it’s worth noting. My review contains my reactions to this section. I don’t consider what I’m saying as a spoiler, but it might prevent new readers from approaching this book neutrally.

Summary from Official Website

No one knows who fathered eleven-year-old Satomi, and the women of her 1950s Japanese mountain town find her mother’s restless sensuality a threat. Satomi’s success in piano competitions has always won respect, saving her and her mother from complete ostracism. But when her mother’s growing ambition tests this delicate social balance, Satomi’s gift is not enough to protect them. Eventually, Satomi is pushed to make a drastic decision in order to begin her life anew. Years later, Satomi’s choices echo in the life of her American daughter, Rumi, a gifted authenticator of Asian antiques. Rumi has always believed her mother to be dead, but when Rumi begins to see a ghost, she wonders: Is this the spirit of her mother? If so, what happened to Satomi?

Picking Bones from Ash explores the struggles women face in accepting their talents, and asks what happens when mothers and daughters dare to question the debt owed each other. Fusing imagination and suspense, Marie Mutsuki Mockett builds a lavish world in which characters journey from Buddhist temples to the black market of international antiques in California, as they struggle to understand each other across cultures and generations.

My Review

I read Picking Bones from Ash as part of Book Club. I don’t think I would have otherwise heard of this novel and that would have been a shame because I loved it.  This review consists of the thoughts and comments I shared with the group last month. Although I’ve cleaned them up a bit, I couldn’t really write a better review. I finished the novel the night before and they capture my thoughts and feelings well.

  • While reading about Satomi’s early life, I felt as if I was in Japan and soaking up the differences in culture. The story and characters felt so real and honest. It was as fascinating to me as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  I also kept making connections to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.
  • I could so much relate to Satomi. While I’m no prodigy, my mother has very distinct beliefs about how life should be lead. I kept to those while I lived with her, but when I moved away from home and encountered other ways of living, I explored and kept those explorations from her. I also very much related to Satomi’s experiences after giving birth. I am grateful that I never left Allison alone or ran away, but I daydreamed about it constantly during her first 4 or 5 months.  I think with all that panic and anxiety her pregnancy and birth created, she fell back on her mother’s ideals for life in order to find herself again. I do understand that daydreaming about leaving and actually leaving are two different things, but I could understand what led to Satomi’s  decision.  Reading about it can be uncomfortable, but for many women, those types of feelings are an unwanted companion duriung those post-partum days.
  • Not everyone could buy that Satomi’s decisions after giving birth to Rumi could be attributed to post-partum depression. It was never explicitly mentioned in the book. I could only respond by saying that I recognized what I saw in Satomi, so I didn’t need any other evidence. If what I was thinking and feeling after Allison were born were written into a book, I’m sure I would seem as narcissistic as Satomi seemed. I was so miserable I just wanted to feel good again. For me, that meant daydreaming about running away and leaving  my entire life behind. To an outside person, I had a perfectly healthy and beautiful baby girl. Sure, she may have been fussy, but babies grow out of fussiness. At that moment in time, it didn’t feel that way to me. It felt like a permanent hell. I believe that Satomi felt equally trapped.
  • The second half of Satomi’s life worked for me where it did not necessarily work for others. Here is why: In addition to a good dose of post-partum depression after Rumi was born, Satomi became a lot like her mother. She formed a commune of sorts where women had to live like her mother had wanted her to live – without men and to be the best at their art. After I moved to Virginia, I “left” my mother’s ways in a manner of speaking. After Allison was born, I tried to compensate for being so miserable by returning to a life more in tune to my mother’s way of thinking. Zs painful as it all was, I’m just glad that all that backfired. Now I’ve found my own path and am much happier with myself and with being a mother. I can’t say that this was the type of ending I dreamed of for Picking Bones from Ash, but it made sense.

I really enjoyed Mockett’s writing and the glimpse she provided into Japanese life. I don’t know if she intended for Satomi to have post-partum depression, but she certainly wrote what was true about it as I experienced it. Not everyone loved the book like I did, but it certainly created a great deal of open, in depth conversation the day of Book Club. I recommend Picking Bones from Ash to book clubs and other readers interested in Japanese culture and spirituality. When reading with others, your certain to have a lively conversation.


  • At 2011.04.11 09:28, S. Krishna said:

    I haven’t read any books about Japan yet this year, and this seems like an interesting place to start. Thanks for the review.

    • At 2011.04.11 10:08, Jen - Devourer of Books said:

      Great review! I agree, I think that cleaning up your comments from BOOK CLUB was a wonderful way to approach this book.

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      • At 2011.04.11 16:26, Sandy said:

        I’ve always appreciated your honest attitude towards your post-partum depression. I think that alot of women are scared to say something because they know they are supposed to feel grateful and blessed. I can see where this book hit home for you, and love the way you used that to frame your review.

        • At 2011.04.12 11:35, Alyce said:

          I haven’t heard of this book before, but I appreciate your honest opinion about it, especially in light of your experiences with post-partum depression.

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