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Ash - A Novel

Caitlin Ober is back in Japan teaching English in remote Kagoshima, opposite the increasingly active volcano Sakurajima. Beneath ominous clouds of ash, Caitlin travels her school rounds with waning enthusiasm. After hours she swims intently, hangs with a group of windsurfers, and attempts to keep her boyfriend, Hiroshi, at bay. She concocts lies and self-deceptions to prevent a tragic childhood incident in Kyoto from intruding on her present. But, like the ash that veils the city, guilt obscures her path. Then, in an ash-coated garden, Caitlin encounters a half-Japanese teenager, Naomi, wrangling with her double identity. Naomi seems to require Caitlin’s rescue, and by degrees the two swap morsels of self-truths. Ultimately they travel to Kyoto during the summer festival of O-Bon, when the spirits of the dead revisit the living. There, amid bonfires, temple rites, and ghostly memories, Caitlin bravely begins to embrace her future.

New Adult, Adult.

Visit The World of Ash website with book group questions, maps, background information on Japanese culture, recipes and more.


“Backed by meticulous research, Thompson’s novel introduces a variety of topics that can be usefully pursued by high school or college level students studying contemporary Japan: details of geography and daily life, the role of O-Bon and beliefs about death, the challenges faced by bicultural and bilingual children growing up in Japan, and the double vision developed by expatriate Caitlin herself.”—Jean Kushida, Education About Asia, Spring 2004

“Ash is a gorgeous debut that takes the expatriate-in-Japan novel well beyond the genre into lasting art.”—Leza Lowitz, Kyoto Journal, Issue 50, 2002

“Ash is a standout in the growing body of literature written by non-Japanese and set in Japan. Richly and precisely observed, it resonates with the kind of phrases you want to linger over.”—Daily Yomiuri, December 23, 2001

"At every turn, you will be surprised by the depth and breadth of [the author's] heart, her ability to create characters (particularly Naomi, the lost teen) that will stay with you and compel you through the rest of the story... [Ash] is a paean to friendship and to the courage of moving forward, which rings particularly loudly in these dark times."—Book Reporter, November 2001

"With plenty of insight into Japanese culture… this thoughtful debut should satisfy readers in search of a convincing fictional take on life in contemporary Japan."—Publishers Weekly, October 1, 2001

"With phrasing as delicate as that of a Haiku, first-time novelist Holly Thompson crafts a deeply moving story that crosses cultural, emotional and even sexual barriers. A wonderful debut.”—January Magazine's Best of 2001

"Warmth and restrained detail bring the characters, especially Mie's mother, Harumi, and sister, Nobuko, convincingly to life… For all Caitlin's frustration with Japan's society, the author's own appreciation of its people glows even in two sketches, gentle and persuasive, of Naomi's Japanese grandfather and the elderly widow of the priest to whose house Caitlin was carried, rigid with shock, after [the tragic childhood incident]."—Japan Times, November 25, 2001

"A haunting tale of love and loss, of destruction and resilience . . . a stirring reminder that our most moving stories are often written in the ash of disaster."—Linda Watanabe McFerrin, author of Namako: Sea Cucumber

"Holly Thompson has a gift for bringing the mind's eye to focus on the details of the moment, whether it be the relentless falling ash of Kagoshima, or a snack of grilled squid legs and barley tea. Her tale of lost companionship, guilt, and redemption takes place against a minutely and lovingly woven tapestry of daily life in modern Japan."—Alex Kerr, author of Dogs and Demons and Lost Japan

"A wonderfully insightful novel about a young woman living within two cultures. Thompson adeptly explores the lasting bonds of friendship and the courage needed to face the past in order to embrace the future."—Gail Tsukiyama, author of Women of the Silk and The Samurai’s Garden