A collection of four linked stories about Japanese women who find themselves drawn to the South Pacific island nation of Tonga and go through life-changing experiences there.
The title work, which comes last in the volume, takes the form of an undelivered letter written by best-selling author Chiharu Doi. The letter is addressed to Naomi, a Japanese woman who moved to Tonga and married a local man; for many years she ran a guesthouse, but she died four and a half years ago.
Chiharu begins her letter with how she first met Naomi when she went to Tonga for a two-year stint with a Japanese overseas volunteer program similar to the Peace Corps, and backtracks from there to memories of her college days, and to her experiences in the massive earthquake that hit the Kōbe area in western Japan on January 17, 1995, on the eve of her graduation.
At the time of the quake, Chiharu is close friends with two fellow members of the Musical Comedy Club, Shizuka and Yasuyo. Shizuka dies in the earthquake, and at her funeral, Yasuyo bitterly reproaches Chiharu for leaving the disaster area to take refuge with someone from her part-time job instead of going to check on her friends. Yasuyo herself went to Shizuka’s house and, finding her dead, did what she could to protect the body before going on to Chiharu’s house. If they were friends, why hadn’t Chiharu made an effort to see if they needed help? Never very good at expressing her feelings, Chiharu is deeply hurt, and she seals her memories of the quake away in the deep recesses of her mind.
Although she starts a regular job after graduation, Chiharu is unable to settle in, and soon resigns in favor of going to Tonga. There, Naomi tells her about how the people of Tonga, who mostly identify as Christians, frequent their churches to speak with their deceased loved ones. Naomi urges Chiharu to join the choir she sings with, and rubbing elbows with the easygoing and big-hearted Tongans proves to be naturally therapeutic for her: she is slowly but surely able to find herself again. When her term with the volunteer program is up and the time comes for her to return to Japan, Naomi and the Tongans in the choir raise their voices in a sublime chorus of farewell. It is also Naomi who urged Chiharu to take up the writing of mysteries, as well as to write about her experiences in the Kōbe quake.
Losses suffered in the quake and the difficult process of recovery figure as important elements in all four stories, and details of the title story in particular closely parallel the author’s own experiences. Published on the 20th anniversary of the disaster, the volume serves as a memorial to those who lost their lives in or were otherwise affected by it.