In this luminous first novel set on an island in Puget Sound, a man is on trial for the brutal murder of a brawny, taciturn salmon fisherman. Because it is the early '50s—with World War II fresh in the islanders' memories—the fact that the defendant Kabuo Miyomoto is of Japanese descent has packed the courtroom with people whose minds were made up before testimony begins.
But not all eyes are on Kabuo. The gaze of the town's newspaper editor Ishmael Chambers—who during the war lost his arm and his humanity—remains fixed on Kabuo's wife, Hatsue, whom he has hopelessly loved since boyhood. The novel skillfully shuttles between the '40s and the '50s, with the testimony of various witnesses leading effortlessly into narrative accounts of key events. Along the way, readers learn an immense amount about gill-netting, the work of a coroner, internment camps, strawberry farming and the protean nature of guilt and innocence. Guterson's particular strength is description. "Her hair...was a river of iridescent onyx.... Mrs. Shigemura lifted Hatsue's hair in her palms and said its consistency reminded her of mercury and that Hatsue should learn to play her hair lovingly, like a stringed musical instrument or a flute. Then she combed it down Hatsue's back until it lay opened like a fan and shimmered in unearthly black waves." This is poetry masquerading as prose. (Harcourt Brace, $21.95)