Themes of loss, historical trauma, and the subjectivity of memory are not exactly rare in Canadian fiction, even in books aimed at younger readers. However, the ambitious new novel by celebrated kidlit veteran Tim Wynne-Jones deals with these hoary subjects in unexpected ways – and does so while throwing in a few genuine chills.
Emperor begins with a familiar-seeming YA scenario: Evan, our teen protagonist, is adrift in a boring Toronto suburb (the “Any Place” of the title), and grieving for his father, an ex-hippie draft dodger whose heart gives out unexpectedly. In his dad’s den, Evan finds a book that contains the dual first-person accounts of two soldiers – one Japanese, one American – stranded on a small island in the South Pacific near the end of the Second World War. Evan soon learns that his estranged grandfather, whom he has never met, is somehow mixed up in the story of the two stranded soldiers. Before long, that very grandfather – a crusty old bugger still full of piss and vinegar despite being in his nineties – is on Evan’s doorstep.
The book then shifts to the mysterious wartime manuscript, which is where The Emperor of Any Place really comes alive. The narrative is shared between Isamu Oshiro, a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army, and Derwood Kraft, the sole survivor of a downed American cargo plane. Oshiro and Kraft recount their struggle to survive against the elements – which include numerous flesh-eating demons and wraiths that inhabit the island. The two soldiers are constantly surrounded by small, placid ghost creatures, and must ward off zombie-like beings that feed on the dead to steal their memories. Worse, they do battle with a tengu – an enormous bear-like creature with the face of a vulture that proves nearly impossible to kill. Giving the island narrative frankly supernatural qualities is a risky move by Wynne-Jones, but it pays off. The soldiers’ ordeal is packed with tension and violence. It’s a gripping and unsettling representation of the dark unrealities that come into being during wartime.
Compared to all that, the contemporary storyline doesn’t really stand a chance. The narrative tension drops precipitously each time we return to Evan’s troubles in Any Place, which never really amount to much beyond his ongoing grief. Evan himself is barely a character at all: he’s a suburban Hamlet without the brilliant monologues, and mostly just sulks around, trying to avoid his grandfather. The mystery surrounding the old man’s connection to Oshiro and Kraft is resolved in a way that is grim and vivid, but bears little relation to the rest of the contemporary story. Wynne-Jones spends a lot of time filling in the details of life in Any Place, but most of it proves unimportant, and the book’s final pages are so saccharine, I kept hoping for a tengu to leap out of nowhere and do some shredding. There was a story to be made of Evan’s conflicts with his grandfather, but it never really materializes.
Ultimately, The Emperor of Any Place feels like two different books – one brilliant, one meh – struggling to occupy the same narrative space.