Gordon McAlpine’s Woman with a Blue Pencil certainly gets points for taking risks. It is rare that a book comes along in which the structure feels so completely original and inventive while also seeming like the only natural way to tell the tale at hand.
Woman with a Blue Pencil is really three separate stories that weave and interact with each other to create new and unexpected avenues of exploration. This slim volume (the book is less than 200 pages) packs more punch than many of the epics out there.
At the core is a story about Sam Sumida, a Japanese American academic who is on a mission to solve the murder of his wife, Kyoko. By using techniques gained from watching noir films, Sam feels he can prove that the man who had an affair with his wife – a police officer – was the same man who murdered her.
This tale of Sam Sumida’s mission for justice is actually a novel written in 1941 by a Japanese man named Takumi. In his efforts to get his book published, Takumi has approached editor Maxine Wakefield – the titular woman with the blue pencil. Receiving the manuscript the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Maxine feels as though Takumi must revise the book in order to be successful in getting it published.
Maxine begins by advising Takumi to excise Sam Sumida from the book and replace him with a less controversial Korean character. She also believes the story would work better as a spy thriller, with the Japanese as the villains, rather than its current format of as a murder mystery. Wanting to get published, Takumi begins to alter his novel with Maxine’s recommendations in mind.
This newly revised novel is the third main story component of Woman with a Blue Pencil. Takumi’s novel is now called The Orchid and the Secret Agent and features Jimmy Park, an agent investigating a plot against the United States. Can Jimmy uncover the true identity of The Orchid before it is too late?
Things might go easier for Jimmy if Sam Sumida were not out there wandering aimlessly trying to figure out what the hell happened. You see, in the structural brilliance of Woman with a Blue Pencil, just because Sam was removed from the pages of his story, this did not “end his life.” Sam still exists and interacts with the imaginary world he once inhabited. And he is confused – and a bit angry – that people who used to know him, somehow seem to have forgotten that Sam Sumida and Kyoko ever existed.
This all reads much less convoluted than any synopsis of the novel could manage to convey. Suffice to say, Gordon McAlpine succeeds in creating a fictional world unlike others readers have seen. And in Maxine Wakefield, McAlpine has fashioned a femme fatale who will do anything to get what she wants – which ultimately is to find fame and fortune by representing a successful book franchise.
Permeating Woman with a Blue Pencil is the plight of Japanese Americans as they are whisked off to internment camps through no fault of their own. Juxtaposing Sam Sumida’s dilemma of being erased from the written page against the real story of a people whose voices were silenced by a society succumbing to fear was an inspired choice. Given the current political climate, the tale behind Woman with a Blue Pencil is a relevant as ever.
Post-modern in structure, Gordon McAlpine’s Woman with a Blue Pencil is a fast-paced and quick read that is likely to make readers look at all future books just a bit differently.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.