April 13, 1996
Set in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, Cynthia Kadohata’s novel In the Heart of the Valley of Love uses symbolism in a way that forces the reader to see beneath the surface of the prose. When the reader looks under the death and decaying exterior of the novel, a whole luscious world is revealed admist the surface void full of beauty, love, and hope. The symbolism within the book is more important than the plotline, and it is in the symbolism that the book carries all its meaning.
Death and decay fills every corner of the world in 2052. Kadohata’s juxtapositioned symbols give the reader a sense that there is absolutely no hope left in Los Angeles. The natural beauty in life is juxtaposed with an artificial beauty on the surface that creates a feeling within the novel that nothing really matters and all life is devoid of meaning. Everything in this world is artificial, as seen from the fact that there is “nothing fresh in our dinners at all. Everything canned or synthetic,” (Kadohata 13) to the character’s situation of having to purchase water by means of credits– which people will blackmail or do anything to get their hands on (Kadohata 9). Even the official flower of Los Angeles doesn’t seem quite so wonderful but “surprising and violent, full of hidden savage beauties” (Kadohata 25).
However, the most striking symbol of human decay doesn’t lie in the destruction of the environment. No, instead this emblem lies within, underneath the skin. Small black bumps that look “like a pearl, lovely, black, shining. Some sort of skin disease” (Kadohata 10). These pearls, the source of all the death being that they are “some sort of disease”, are also a symbol of beauty for Francie. The symbolism of the pearls show us two things. First, these pearls are a constant reminder of the characters’ mortalities as well as showing us that beneath the darkness lies beauty as well.
It is the pearls and their dark symbolism that show Francie that beneath the surface there always lies something exotic and beautiful. To Francie the pearls are “so pretty, so grotesque,” and it is out of this juxtaposition of beauty and horror where the appreciation is nourished. For, although Francie or anyone else born in this world cannot escape the horrors of the diseases that surround their lifeless world, they can take what dark beauty there is and appreciate it.
For the characters living in Kadohata’s novel it is said that ” trust is the foundation of the world’ ” (105). However, this is presented within the novel as a silly ideal. None of the characters truly desire to connect to one another out of fear that they’d be taken away or turned into another governmental conspiracy. They have learned by way of the distrusting actions the government takes, that it is easier to not trust than to trust and be imprisoned possible never to return.
On a table, right in the middle, lay our money. I didn’t know whether I had noticed it before, or whether someone had put it there within the past few minutes. But I knew what it meant. It was a warning, to tell me that Rohn had been arrested, not robbed.
“Hurry, we have to go,” I said. “He’s been arrested.” (Kadohata 15)
Here we see the distrust that is fostered in this culture. Trust becomes distrust in this distorted future to the point where even those who are paid to provide public protection are corrupt and uncaring. There is no real trust; the government is a vortex force not to be dealt with. Even at the close of the novel, the reader is keep in suspense whether or not Rohn will return back home.
Another type of distrust also abounds in this world. People here are distrustful of feeling love. Everyone lives in fear of losing that someone special because “people became sick and died so abruptly that you hated to love anyone, you really did” (Kadohata 11), or taken away. It is because of this constant fear and reminder of their own mortality where everyone is disconnected from themselves and others; but it is only through their inactive interaction where the characters within the novel are allowed to express their love.
However bleak and artificial this world may seem, hope still exists within the human spirit. “Pesticides and mysticism, police and religion– people were always looking for powerful forces to change the world” (Kadohata 215) describes what everyone seeks within the novel to heal their emptiness. Even as kids they waited for something to tell them the signs to look for while they “were so desperate, we thought these dreams would tell us” (Kadohata 218). Tell them what, that love and beauty has always been there, if they only realized it? Yes, for what the characters fail to realize is that the things they are searching for to provide the cure for all the pain and death found in the world can only be found within themselves.
In the end this is exactly what Francie and her friends discover– how to love and recognize beauty in the smallest of things rather than waiting for something big to happen and force them to awaken and realize what they really have is better than the artificial nothing that surrounds them. The beautiful pearls of disease; a tattoo used as a symbol of devotion in a time where trust is rare; and a metal box found in the desert containing nothing (the nothingness representing the endless possibilities for their future) are all proof of the beauty and love beneath the surface of the novel.
Strikingly poetic in it’s writing Kadohata states it best when she writes “what lay underneath all the cunning was hope” (34). This simple sentence describes the achievement of the entire novel. Surrounded in a world devoid of everything beautiful, it is when one looks underneath all the darkness to discover a whole world of beauty and love which lies therein.
Kadohata writes “there was a Japanese word my mother had taught me before she died : yoyu, and although it didn’t translate it meant somewhere between enough’ and abundance.’ It meant “something left over,” a spiritual excess that allowed someone to be generous” (203). However, yoyu is much more than this within In the Heart of the Valley of Love. Yoyu is the excess of love and beauty that comes from the world where darkness abounds. It describes the power within each character. It also describes the book, itself, as it attempts to create a balance of life and death with just enough left over to foster hope for a better future.