Book Review: Picking Bones from Ash

“Here we are. A girl without a mother and a girl with too much of a mother. Which, I wonder, would most people rather be? One inherits history. The other is free to create it herself.” (pg. 246)

Picking Bones from Ash, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett, is a beautiful and almost-haunting novel that explores the struggles mothers and daughters face when trying to understand each other across cultures and generations. I was instantly moved by Mockett’s choice of words. Each one feels like it was hand-picked for the novel after careful consideration. There is a lightness and a beauty to the descriptive prose in this novel that consumed me. I felt my own emotions being altered based on what was happening to the primary women in the story.

The story opens with Satomi, a young girl who lives in a tiny Japanese town with her mother, an elusive and playful woman who is mysterious as she is beautiful. Akiko (Satomi’s mother who reminds me of a calmer Ingrid, from White Oleander) encourages her to harvest her talent as a pianist, because the “only way a woman can be truly safe in this world…is to be fiercely, inarguably, and masterfully talented.” (pg. 3) After becoming a social pariah, Akiko sacrifices herself into marriage in order to provide her daughter with the expensive education she needs to succeed.

The story revolves around three generations of women in the family, Akiko, Satomi and Rumi, Satomi’s American daughter who is deeply affected by the choices Satomi makes in her life (because, really, all of our lives are defined by the choices of our parents). The five parts of the book are narrated by Satomi or Rumi, depending on the moment in time the story is telling. I think it was a wonderful choice by Mockett, giving us the story through the eyes of the two women who are struggling with the secrets of their mothers. It is Akiko’s secrets that are of ultimate importance to the end of the story, so to hear her voice would not have been as effective.

The descriptions in Japan are some of the most beautiful I have read. Mockett does an excellent job blending the very Japanese and American backgrounds of the women, and includes a lot of ancient lore in brilliant retelling. I especially adored the use of magical realism, when Rumi (an American, trained by her father in object authentication) starts listening to ancient objects to determine their authenticity. It was reminiscent of her mother’s natural musical talent.

All in all, I was enamored with this book from the very beginning. The struggle between mother and daughter, between past and present, between Eastern and Western cultures. And while Satomi’s desire to start her life anew is understandable given the circumstances she is put in, we cannot escape our family, our history. Sometimes we must unlock the secrets of our mothers, in order to understand ourselves.

Picking Bones from Ash is Mockett’s first novel, published by Graywolf Press on October 1, 2009. It was shortlisted for the 2010 Saroyan Prize, named as a Finalist for the 2010 Paterson Fiction Prize, and long-listed for the Asian American Literary Awards. You can find more information about the novel at, and you can join me in stalking the author at or on twitter @MarieMockett.

***Disclosure: This book was provided to me by Graywolf Press in exchange for an honest review. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own***

This review is also available on Associated Content.

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