Top positive review
A poetic, dream-like meditation on the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku
Reviewed in the United States on August 14, 2013
After the earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, naturalist and poet Gretel Ehrlich visited the area three times in six months to gather material for Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami. Drawing on first person accounts from fisherman and farmers, Buddhist priests, aid workers and teachers, Ehrlich has fashioned a narrative of extraordinary beauty and power.
As with John Hersey's Hiroshima, the first-person accounts in Facing the Wave are interspersed with hard science to put things in perspective: "In the quake's 'seismic moment,' the total energy released was two hundred thousand times the energy at the earth's surface, equal to six hundred million times the energy of the bomb dropped at Hiroshima. In six shaking minutes the northeastern coast of Japan was torn off its roots with an undersea roar that could be heard on hydrophones in Oregon."
Ehrlich is familiar enough with Japanese culture, Buddhism and Shinto to eschew the usual "stoicism of the Japanese" approach for a more nuanced portrayal of both resiliency and heartbreak. The writing is powerful and assured like the non-fiction of Peter Matthiessen: "I thought it would be black, this tsunami-devastated coast, with a Hokusai wave frozen in place, always arriving, always threatening. But on this June day the Pacific Ocean is flat and blue, the ruined coast is gray dust thick with crematorium ash, and there is no wave."
In addition to the poetry that Ehrlich has chosen to grace many of the chapters, there are great lines throughout the prose: "Mist lolls between branches that huff green oxygen. Radioactive dew shines. My breath mixes with the gasp of trees."
With natural disasters these days, the idea is to get the camera crews on the ground as soon as possible. The image never dies - at least until it is eclipsed by the next big news event. But after reading Ehrlich's Facing the Wave, you realize that the two years between the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and this account have been well worth the wait. You've seen the video of the boat on top of the bridge. Now you can read the book and feel what it means.