Review of Star Sand by Roger Pulvers: simple, short, sweet, a little too starry

Author Roger Pulvers is a polymath with a  formidable list of achievements that after perusing, usually require a lie down with a cold cloth on my forehead. He is the kind of person we might refer to as ‘atama ga agaranai’, a person whose achievements are so humbling that you are compelled to bow down to them.

In his recent novella about World War II, Pulvers explores a theme that is as important as it is eternally poignant-war and peace. I think Pulvers is saying that the tragedy of war is not that we are forced to hate the other, but that ‘in the end, you come to hate your own more than you hate others’ (p.184 in AmazonCrossing paperback, 2016 edition). We just have to reflect on the heated ‘history wars’ being waged even today within Japan to understand how true this is.

By locating Star Sand’s narrative on one of the tiny islands of Okinawa-a kind of internal ‘other’ place within Japan, and by choosing three main characters who are ‘misfits’ for different reasons, I get what Pulvers is saying about displacement and the ethics of being on the margins. Hiromi, the main protagonist is a Japanese-American, an embodiment of the conflict that instigated the war in the Pacific. She is both war and peace.

What I most enjoyed is that all the ‘action’ in this story-love, death, hate, violence, reconciliation-happens inside a tiny, dank, air deprived cave on a virtually uninhabited island. The theatre of war is, when viewed with hindsight, fought in the tiny crevices of our minds and hearts.

Yet after whizzing through this novella, I’m left wondering why  Star Sand is so unformed, almost too simplistic and girlish in tone. The plot seems inconceivable, the writing is so plain, and the diary structure doesn’t work for me. I had to really strain my suspension of disbelief to go with the narrative flow.

And for me, the  imagery of Hiromi, the 16 year old bottling star sand or hoshizuna (star shaped shells that can be found in the Okinawan islands), while delightful, was a little too reminiscent of a shoujo manga (comics for girls). There was something too contrived and too starry-eyed-innocent in this image. Perhaps I expected something with a bit more gravitas from the likes of Pulvers rather than something so airily light.

Not that airily light is necessarily a bad thing. Maybe this story was written for a younger audience? The appearance of university student Shiho in the final scenes to wrap up the story suggest that maybe a youthful readership is targeted.

I think Star Sand works if I rethink the story as impressionistic literature. Perhaps the details of the life in the cave or on the island, the characterisation or even the plot don’t matter as much as what Hiromi perceives. Because seeing World War II through her eyes changes everything.  After all, if war is really about conflicts that lie within all of us, then it is incumbent on us to look inside ourselves, to look to our own ethics rather than lashing out externally (as does the murderous brother, the fourth person in the cave). Hiromi implicates all of us in the story of war and peace.

This novella is a breezy read despite the seemingly heavy subject matter. It’s in fact a good holiday book. It was for me.

Star Sand by Roger Pulvers; Publisher: AmazonCrossing; 2016; originally published in Japanese as Hoshizuna Monogatari; Publisher: Kodansha; 2015; The Star Sand movie debuted at the 9th Okinawa International Movie Festival in Naha (April 20-23), 2016

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