The Eater of Dreams

By Yutaka Dirks

by Kat Cameron
Thistledown Press
2019/$20.00/216 pp.

Steps away from the bombed-out remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall stands a small statue memorializing Sadako Sasaki, who was just two years old when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city. She lived another 10 years, dying in 1955 from leukemia caused by radiation poisoning. She began folding origami cranes before she died. According to Japanese folklore, create a thousand cranes and one’s wish is granted; Sasaki wished for a world without nuclear war.

Sasaki’s cranes appear twice in Kat Cameron’s debut story collection, The Eater of Dreams. In “Fractures,” a former English teacher returns to Japan to show her Canadian partner the country that had so affected her 10 years ago. The pair travel the countryside, looking for the “authentic Japan,” but Maya, the ex-teacher, is left disappointed. She taught her students about Sasaki, and when they visit the Hiroshima Peace Park she feels faint. It’s not the tragedy that moves her but the feeling that her Japan has moved on and all she’s left with are “fragments [that] didn’t fit together… bits of memory.”

Most of the 15 stories here fall into three groups: fantastic or satirical takes on storytelling and writers; a group of tales about Zoe, a young opera singer navigating her familial and romantic relationships after fleeing an abusive partner; and the stories set in Japan with English teachers Maya and Elaine. Grief and loss are never far from the surface. In the affecting first story, a young woman accompanies her friends and their young daughters to Edmonton’s Muttart Conservatory. The narrator is angry, unlikeable. But, as is later revealed, she has good reason to be. (As novelist Claire Messud has said, the question isn’t about a character’s likeability, it’s “Is this character alive?”)

In Cameron’s title story, the longest at 67 pages and the most accomplished, a potential friend for the narrator is surprisingly not alive at all. Elaine has come to teach English in Japan after the death of her fiancé. She is haunted by the past: the memories of her dead lover and by the wispy gaijin ghost of a long-dead American expat. Heartbroken, Elaine muses about Sadako Sasaki. “If I had a thousand origami cranes, I would wish for my old life, but now it’s just a dream I once had.”

When I visited the Hiroshima Peace Park several years ago I wept. The death and devastation was overwhelming, unbearable in its massive and yet intimately human scale. The stories in The Eater of Dreams, despite the characters’ struggles, inspire a more muted emotional response. Cameron’s characters are “alive,” even as they are—in the words of Lafcadio Hearn, the gaijin ghost, “only dreaming in this fleeting world.”

—Yutaka Dirks is a writer and social justice activist in Winnipeg.

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