My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The unearthing of buried family secrets, robots in near-future Japan, and gorgeous prose got me into Plum Rains, and the complex characters and relationships they build with each other kept me turning the pages. Romano-Lax pulls the strings tauter and tauter as we follow nurse Angelica through her days of constant worry and stress, elderly Sayoko through an unburdening decades in the making, and robot Hiro through the first days of his consciousness. I almost rolled my eyes when I picked up on the parallels between Angelica and Sayoko, and again when Hiro pointed them out and started talking about the human need and desire to tell stories and find meaning in patterns (another writer getting meta about writing, I thought), until I got to the end and stewed over it for several days and finally understood the full complexity of the point Romano-Lax is making in this book.
The world has put a moratorium on AI, called the Pause, but it is on the brink of a breakthrough. Japan is a society on hold, clinging to the past, celebrating the centennial birthday of every aging citizen, desperate for the birth of a new generation. Sayoko is paused, wilting as she waits to die and yet railing against the end of a life she found unfulfilling. Angelica’s life has been on perpetual hold since the death of her family during childhood, and she is utterly consumed by the need to be needed. Hiro awakes into this world, caught between the dramas of these two women, informed by their stories and actions as he constructs an identity for himself. His act of building identity mirrors the painful process both Sayoko and Angelica have undergone and continue to undergo to build their own selves. Although Hiro presents as masculine, his role in the story is distinctly feminine. He is the maiden in the triad, Angelica the mother, Sayoko the crone. Three faces, three phases, three lives challenging the Pause.
Society’s dismissal and fear of Hiro is a potent parallel of society’s dismissal and fear of women’s lived experiences, of women’s autonomy, of women’s authority. These are all treated as thing that should not exist, things society keeps trying to Pause, to put off, to ignore and pretend are not real. When Angelica’s phone and identity is hacked, it is handled with a curious mix of terror and mundanity in the text—see how easy it is to take control of a vulnerable woman, how expected, how commonplace? When Sayoko speaks out about the “comfort women” of WWII, everyone is shocked and embarrassed and wants to pretend it didn’t happen that way. When Hiro asserts his right to exist, everyone questions it, asking if a robot as a created object has the capacity to assert at all. It is not far from the creation of identity society performs on women every day, telling them who and what they are, and then questioning if they have the capacity to assert, if their recollections are true, if their existence outside of that constructed identity is valid. Romano-Lax doesn’t keep anything simple; she layers on native peoples, colonialism, and immigrant rights. She leans into issues of women’s bodily autonomy not only through the necessity of invasive care for an aging body but through the outlawing of abortion as a means of addressing the birth-rate crisis. Once again, society stands on the backs and necks of women and tells them they have no right to refuse.
The more I dwell on this novel, the better it gets. But at its core are the relationships—everything is expressed and explored through the characters’ relationships to each other: familial, romantic, friendly, convenient, unwanted, fraught with tension and uncertainty. The friendship that grows between Angelica and Hiro, the building of an alliance, culminates in such a killer final scene. After such a slow unfolding of story and sad climax, I applaud Romano-Lax for ending with a thriller-genre note. Perfection.