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Consorting with ghosts


By Nora Okja Keller

Viking, $21.95


"What are living people to ghosts," asks Akiko, the Korean mother in Nora Okja Keller's novel, "except ghosts themselves?" Akiko is a single mom trying to raise her daughter Beccah in modern-day Hawaii. Intruding on her mind are the horrifying, disjointed memories of life as a "comfort woman," a sex slave of the Japanese army during its brutal occupation of Korea. Witness to war-time atrocities, violated down to her name (Akiko is her Japanese name), Mother lives in close contact with the ancient spirits, only rarely calling in for messages from reality. Broken by her experience, Akiko has the "gift" _ the power to talk with the dead. Her horrifying recollections power this novel.

It's up to Beccah, Akiko's only child, to deal with the tough realities of the present. Beccah is one of the more solid child narrators in recent memory. Not too wise, not too restrained and no dope, young Beccah hedges her bets in the real world and the invisible one. She would like to be "the new Marie Osmond," and worries about the right school clothes, but when no one is looking, she burns dollar bills to appease the spirits tormenting her mother's mind. One of these spirits is the memory of Beccah's dead father, an evangelical, blue-eyed devil, Akiko's savior and yet another colonizer. His memory is the bridge Akiko and Beccah share _ Akiko is sure she killed him with her mojo. Becca can't be sure it's not true.

Managed by glitzy Auntie Reno, proprietress of a barbecue joint in Waikiki, Akiko becomes a psychic attraction. Mobs of strangers descend on the house _ Korean-Americans who pay cash for communications with long-dead relatives. With Akiko's clairvoyance (or mental illness) as a revenue-producing sideshow, mother and daughter manage to survive. By novel's end, Beccah is working on the obits section of the Honolulu Star Bulletin, finally having her own daily contact with the dead.

Alternately tender and rattling, Comfort Woman deals unsentimentally with the horrifying intrusiveness of history. Roped together in the past, mother and daughter are locked in a reciprocating hysteria, unable to help each other, never able to let go.

Parents are the first, and usually most persistent ghosts. Nora Okja Keller portrays this haunting beautifully. In Comfort Woman, the interplay of mother and daughter living between Asian and American cultures makes for a disturbing, first-rate novel.

Comfort Woman is an instructive meditation on the struggle between past and the future, the mixed heritage we all share.

Phillip Herter is a writer who lives in New York.