PICKING BONES FROM ASH

Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Spanning four decades, and three continents, Picking Bones from Ash tells the story of Satomi and her daughter Rumi. Satomi, a talented pianist, lives with her mother in northern Japan. When her mother remarries and Satomi gains two stepsisters, she feels betrayed. Thirty years later, Rumi lives a sheltered life in San Francisco working as an art dealer with her father, but the ghosts of her past call her to visit her mother’s homeland.

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Spanning four decades, and three continents, Picking Bones from Ash tells the story of Satomi and her daughter Rumi. Satomi, a talented pianist, lives with her mother in northern Japan. When her mother remarries and Satomi gains two stepsisters, she feels betrayed. Thirty years later, Rumi lives a sheltered life in San Francisco working as an art dealer with her father, but the ghosts of her past call her to visit her mother’s homeland.

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  • Graywolf Press
  • Paperback
  • February 2011
  • 320 Pages
  • 9781555975760

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About Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Marie Mutsuki Mockett was born in Carmel, California to a Japanese mother and American father. Her mother and father met in Vienna, Austria, where both were studying music. Because German was the only language her parents shared in common,

Marie grew up speaking Japanese with her mother, and German with both her parents, only learning English once she started school. Through numerous trips to Japan, Marie developed a deep love of her mother’s homeland. Her father, an Asian art collector and restorer, taught her the value of beautiful things. Marie graduated from Columbia University with a degree in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. In her thesis, “Shamanism in Japan,” she explored the powerful role that women have played in developing Japan’s indigenous religion of Shinto. Her work often focuses on the intersection between spirituality and modernity, and the manner in which Japan and America, the world’s two richest countries, have responded to unprecedented materialism and success.

Past honors for her work include a Pushcart nomination, semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel contest, finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Short Story Competition, and a Rona Jaffe Award nomination. Her essay, Letter from a Japanese Crematorium, originally published in Agni 65, was cited as notable in the 2008 Best American Essays. In her spare time, Marie loves to take dance class, read, travel, study languages, knit, and enjoy old and new friends. Picking Bones from Ash is her debut novel.

Praise

“A well-written and notable story of three generations of strong-willed women, each in search of something just out of their grasp; the sacrifices they make for their daughters; and the unseen repercussions of choices made long ago.”—Booklist

“A book of intelligence and heart. As Mockett reveals, the ghosts of our mothers are always within us.”—Amy Tan

“[Picking Bones from Ash], so firmly anchored in a sensuous reality, veers into a dream world. A reader has the sense that even the author was driven by her most powerful character: the original mother, raising her daughter alone, shunned by villagers, forced to make decisions that haunt her descendants.”
—The Los Angeles Times

“Solid and graceful. . . . Mockett combines the best elements of a mystery story, ghost story, magical realism and the complex difficulties in deciding what is ‘best’ for our elders and offspring.” —Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Discussion Questions

At the beginning of the book, Satomi says: “My mother always told me there is only one way a woman can be truly safe in this world. And that is to be fiercely, inarguably, and masterfully talented.” Is Satomi safe in the end? At what cost? And what about the other female characters, particularly Akiko and Rumi? What does it mean for a woman to be safe?

 

Satomi seeks out Western music in Paris, Timothy yearns for spiritual enlightenment through Buddhism, and François reinvents himself in San Francisco. Discuss the ways in which these and other characters—and perhaps you yourself—find freedom through other cultures, and comfort in what is native.

 

On page 246, Satomi tells Rumi, “Here we are. A girl without a mother and a girl with too much of a mother. Which, I wonder, would most people rather be? One inherits history. The other is free to create it herself.” Do you think it is better to inherit history or to create a history for yourself? 

 

François teaches Rumi the importance of seeing beauty out of context. How does this skill help her later on? How does it relate to the Buddhist notion of seeing through illusion? 

 

Why do you think the ghost of Akiko revealed itself to Rumi and not to Satomi? 

 

Masayoshi says: “When parents and children can accept each other—no matter what that means—their relationships with everyone else will change” (page 272). How do you feel about this statement? 

 

How did Mockett’s use of interlocking stories and voices affect your reading experience? 

 

Mockett has said: “I felt it was important that any supernatural elements in my novel would be grounded in psychological truths, because that’s the ‘reality’ of true supernatural experiences.” How does the supernatural function within her story? Does it add atmosphere? Did it detract from the story? 

 

On page 224, Akira says: “The world of the living can be like that of the dead. It is tragic when we lose ourselves in grief.” What do you think about this statement? Is it something that you or someone close to you has experienced? 

 

At the end of the novel, Akiko says to Satomi: “You look like a loved person. It always shows on people’s faces. The ones who discover love when they are much older always look startled.” Do you agree?