Elisabeth Wilkins Lombardo was awarded the 2009 PEN/New England Fiction Discovery Prize for the unpublished manuscript of her novel, The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda. She went to Japan as an exchange student in college and stayed for ten more years, traveling extensively throughout Asia from her home in Kobe, Japan, where she worked as a radio and TV personality, teacher, and writer. Her prize-winning essay about the Great Hanshin Earthquake, “After the Quake,” was translated into Japanese and subsequently published in an anthology of the same name. Her stories have been published in The Japan Times, The Daily Yomiuri, Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), and Kansai Timeout. Elisabeth received her MFA from the Stonecoast Creative Writing Program in 2005. At the time of her death in 2015, Wilkins Lombardo was the editor of Empowering Parents, an award-winning online parenting magazine with a growing international readership of more than 500,000. She lived in Cape Elizabeth, Maine with her husband and son.
As he stumbles through an afterlife he never believed in, scientist Kenzaboro Tsuruda must make sense of his life and confront his family’s secrets in order to save his ancestors from becoming Hungry Ghosts―a Buddhist state of purgatory. Meanwhile, his daughter, wife, and sister-in-law struggle with their own loss and take turns sharing their point of view to gradually reveal their family’s shameful history. During WWII, Kenzaboro sent his wife, Satsuki, to live with family near Hiroshima, where her rape by his brother resulted in the birth of their only child, Haruna.
Spanning the years during WWII and its horrific ending after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, up to Emperor Hirohito’s death in 1989, The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda paints a beautiful and haunting portrait of ancient and modern Japan as seen through the eyes of one family as they reconcile loss, shame, honor, death, and, finally, redemption.
Reviews and Awards
“The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda is both lyrical and moving. Elisabeth has written, simply, a stunning novel.”
―Ann Hood, author of The Book The Matters Most, The Red Thread, and Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine
“The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda is a beautiful, intricate novel that reminded me powerfully of Ha Jin’s Waiting.”
―Shonna Milliken Humphrey, author of Show Me Good Land, and Dirt Roads and Diner Pie
With exquisite prose, an artist’s eye and firsthand knowledge of Japanese culture, Elisabeth Wilkins Lombardo has created a masterful, memorable first novel centered on the journeys and discoveries of Kenzaburo Tsuruda, a man astounded to find himself both dead yet very much alive in the afterlife he never believed in. Her masterful prose and deft timing keep both Kenzaburo and the reader guessing the truth right up to the last page.”
―Suzanne Strempek Shea, author of Sundays in America, Selling the Lite of Heaven, and Shelf Life
“As fans of the great filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki know, tales of spirits and ghosts abound in Japan. Elisabeth Wilkins Lombardo’s first novel weaves those myths into a riveting family saga universal in its pain and drama. The secrets and lies of the Tsuruda family slowly peel away over the years following World War II, leaving its members only their stunning truths. Her knowledge of the culture and language are evident in her textured storytelling. Lyrical, haunting, and deliciously page-turning, The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda transports us to a Japan of myth and mysticism.”
―Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, author of Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death and the forthcoming Harper Collins novel Pastor’s Wives
“In this remarkable debut novel, Elisabeth Wilkins Lombardo has crafted a gorgeous story filled with magic, mythology, horror and, ultimately, humanity. Set in part during World War II Japan, and told from three strong points of view―a ghost, his ailing wife, and his independent daughter― The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda is a delicate blend of language combined with strong, unforgettable characters. It is a balanced masterpiece of language and emotion that leaves the reader richer for the experience, and reluctant to leave the story at all.”
―Morgan Callan Rogers, author of Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea
“The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda is a gorgeous and powerful story about love, mortality, the afterlife, and the legacy of a war that continues to shape Japanese culture in ways that Americans can only begin to understand. Elisabeth Wilkins Lombardo has a gentle and careful eye: for the inner lives of her characters, for the quiet details of nature, and for the intricacies of a nation during a period of vast transformation. This is a book that takes on all the big themes of literature, yet frames them within the subtle details of her characters’ lives. Told through multiple narratives and across a swirling fifty-year chronology, Wilkins Lombardo reveals deeper and deeper layers of meaning that makes this simple story of an old man’s death relentlessly complex. The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda is a book that speaks to the human condition at every level: the personal, romantic, intellectual, political, and cultural.”
―Jaed Coffin, author of A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants
Elisabeth's Previous Work
A Note from Joe, Beth’s Husband
When Beth first told me about her book idea, we were walking together at the Tōdai-ji temple in Nara, Japan. It was April, and people all around us were celebrating hanami, the custom of viewing the cherry blossoms. Beth and I, two expatriates living in Kobe, noticed plates of special foods left at Tōdai-ji. She said the offerings reminded her of Obon.
Obon is a week-long Japanese summer holiday when families anticipate the return of their ancestors’ spirits—sort of Memorial Day and Thanksgiving mixed with Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Beth said she wanted to write a novel about Obon but told from the perspective of someone who had recently died. I remember that spring day at Tōdai-ji because the idea of Obon written from a dead person’s perspective interested me. It felt unique and exactly like something my wife would imagine. At the time, she hosted a Japanese radio show. She was also featured as a television and print advertising spokesmodel—a Midwestern native from Illinois dressed in full kimono and selling Japanese products such as tea, candy, and pudding. You can probably still hear her voice on the train to Kansai Airport, welcoming passengers to the terminal. She lived such a creative life, so I was not surprised that one of her goals was to write a novel. When we eventually returned to the United States, she completed a graduate degree in fiction writing, and the idea she once shared with me beside the Tōdai-ji cherry trees became a manuscript that quickly won a PEN/New England Award for new writers.
And then she died.
Beth had written a novel about the delicate veil between life and death— and now she, herself, was dead. Beth would have seen the humor in that. She loved to laugh. During the last awful week of Beth’s cancer, her friends and I promised to find her novel an audience. Thanks to you, reader, we are keeping that promise.
Beth believed in an afterlife, and through her story of a complex Japanese family—both living and dead—I can see, smell, hear, and taste exactly how that afterlife existed in her mind. Those descriptions comfort me, as well as the other people who knew her best. Just like the Tsuruda family she created in these pages, I believe Beth’s soul found her way home.