I loved Floating City. So often, books about immigrants pursuing the ‘American Dream’ and becoming a ‘Master of Industry’ feature white men; this is the first time I can think of that I’ve seen the story told with a Japanese-Canadian man.
This book is about a man driven by ambition, often to the detriment of his loved ones, and like many similarly ambitious heroes, Frankie Hanesaka ends up sacrificing a lot to achieve his dreams. There’s something Gatsby-esque about Frankie — he’s a charismatic, brilliant man who appears successful on so many levels, yet there’s a melancholy emptiness that just won’t go away.
There’s also a lot that’s specifically Japanese-Canadian about Frankie’s character — I love the tension between his ambitions to take over Toronto real estate and the ever-looming significance of the number four in his life. In Japanese writing, similar to Chinese writing, the symbol for four is also the symbol for death, so the number four is seen as particularly unlucky. There’s a moment where he completes his masterpiece building, and his contractor is thrilled to have gotten two extra steps in, but the triumph is marred by the realization that the number of steps has now become divisible by four. I can imagine my Chinese grandmother reacting similar to how Frankie’s mother did, and I loved the realism of this moment.
I thought Sakamoto did a good job depicting the fear and racism that Frankie and his family went through around the time of WWII — particularly powerful was a moment where a Chinese-Canadian neighbour and friend illustrated a poster about the difference between “honest” Chinese-Canadians like himself and “sneaky Japs” like one of his Japanese-Canadian neighbours. It’s definitely an unjust and racist action, but I can sympathize as well with the Chinese-Canadian man’s desire to protect himself and his family from the hatred Japanese-Canadians were facing.
I also liked how Frankie Hanesaka felt the need to rename himself “Frank Hanes” to do business. I thought it was a realistic portrayal of how persons of colour often feel the need to assimilate to survive. Sakamoto wrote about an incident where a man refused to do business with Frankie, but quickly agreed to the deal when it was presented by someone who wasn’t Japanese-Canadian.
Sakamoto also does a great job in drawing parallels between discrimination and injustice faced by different communities, particularly with the characters of Uri Slonemsky and his wife Hannah, who took Frankie under their wing because, as Jews, they could understand the discrimination Japanese-Canadians experienced. I found this passage particularly powerful: “No one else would hire the Japanese. Only the Jews extended a helping hand, having received so few themselves.” (p. 78)
Overall, a compelling story, beautifully told.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.