Book Review: “The Bells of Old Tokyo” by Anna Sherman

9/10 Excellent, well-written; a book I would love to read again.

This memoir stories Sherman’s search for a series of bells that used to operate around Tokyo many years ago, some of which still ring on schedule. The history of these bells goes back to when Tokyo was a much smaller city. Sherman’s goal is to discover the fate of each bell and tie its history into where it lies today. The chapters are broken up into the discovery of each bell and the history surrounding it, with interludes of Sherman’s visits to a quiet, forgotten cafe.

The Bells of Old Tokyo blurs the lines between memoir, history, and novel. It is deeply researched with many passages covering episodes of Tokyo’s past, both familiar and obscure. You will learn something by reading this book, and likely a lot. Everywhere Sherman goes, even the little cafe that acts as the framing for the book, is steeped in history that she is more than willing to delve into while offering moments of self-reflection. Contrasted with the history is a sharp commentary on modern Japan; both the ups and downs of a society that only wants to remember some of its past. And in the back of the book, a hefty section of notes expands on details only touched on in the text, and the list of references is impressive. She draws on the works of others, sharing writing or thoughts on life and Japan from a variety of voices.

But Sherman is not without a voice of her own. The writing is engaging and flowing. Sherman doesn’t let the facts of history stop her from painting vivid pictures or adding human elements to passages that could have devolved into dry recitations of historical events. She represents the people she meets well, capturing their unique voice and circumstances. You feel what they feel. That said, the style and manner in which the book is paced and chaptered may not be for everyone.

If you want to become intimate with Tokyo and can’t visit the modern metropolis in-person (neither can I), The Bells of Old Tokyo is a great place to start, assuming Japan is not completely alien to you. You will be plunged into the history, culture, and spirit of Tokyo while being taken on a journey no one has taken in a long time.

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