“Regret” is the given name of the protagonist of Alan Brennert’s beautiful, sprawling novel Honolulu. Born in Korea, which was a rigidly Confucianist country under Japanese occupation at the beginning of the 20th century, she gets her name for no other reason than that she’s a girl, and women in her country are treated just slightly better, perhaps, than livestock.
When Regret asks her father to allow her to learn to read, he slaps her. But Regret learns anyway, in secret, with the help of a family friend, and her ambitions lead her to become a “picture bride,” one of many women sent to Hawaii to marry transplanted Korean bachelors. On the boat ride across the Pacific, Regret changes her name to the more appropriate Jin (jewel), and makes the acquaintance of several of the other brides-to-be. In a funny/awful scene at the dock in Hawaii, some of them are appalled when they finally meet their fiancés. The men had sent photos of themselves taken when they were much younger, posed next to swank American cars they didn’t own. One girl turns around and gets back on the boat, but Jin resigns herself to marry Mr. Noh, a plantation worker who at the time seems pleasant enough.
From then on Brennert puts his heroine through her paces: Mr. Noh turns out to be an alcoholic whose violence causes Jin to divorce him, an unheard-of act in her old society. But this is Hawaii, and Jin learns to make her own way as a seamstress and, at least once, as a chaste sort of courtesan. Daringly, Brennert links her to various historical figures, including May Thompson, whom Somerset Maugham rechristened “Sadie Thompson” and turned into a character in his story Rain; Joe Kalani, a young man lynched for a rape he didn’t commit; and Chang Apana, the real-life inspiration for Charlie Chan. Brennert’s realization of Jin, a character of so different a time, place and gender from his own, is an amazing accomplishment in itself. Honolulu is a delight.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.