The Phoenix Tree – Jon Cleary

The Phoenix Tree by Jon Cleary
The Phoenix Tree by Jon Cleary

I’ve been wanting to read Jon Cleary for many years so it was with great satisfaction I took this book off my shelf the other day and started reading it. I thought he wrote spy or thriller or some other type of book I like reading and felt the satisfaction deepening as I read…until.

The plot

Set in Japan at the end of WWII, we see the journey of three spies. Two are Japanese/American with one identifying as Japanese and the other as American, and one female spy who is of mixed heritage but neither Japanese nor American.

We see the war mostly from the Japanese point of view. We see regular bombs raining down and one of the spies becoming a hero, helps us to understand how heroes are made. We also see the bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki through Japanese eyes rather than Western, although we don’t see much of it, just how it affects them.

The good

Well written. Believable plot. Liked the characters. Loved the way Cleary skipped over some of the really boring parts of the protagonist’s journey.

The bad

Romance! I’m sure you know I’m not a big fan and it can be a reading killer for me.

While I liked his characters, I didn’t find them appealing enough to make me want to continue reading.

Despite both of these I made it through. I wanted to see how Cleary treated both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I wasn’t entirely convinced he understood Japanese culture thoroughly enough to be writing about it. I do actually have some reasoning for this. Some of his dialogue felt very Western to me, as did some of his references to Japanese hierarchy. Some of his dialogue was meant to sound Western as two of the spies had spent quite some time in America.

Some of it I’ve been able to research and find he’s spot on, some concepts such as giri (or burden of obligation) seems to be far stronger than anything we have in the West and is a big part of the book.

On the other hand it might be my understanding that’s at fault. I’d be interested in hearing from someone who actually knows the culture and has read the book.

The bit I didn’t understand is how come these female characters looked after themselves before the male spies came but all of a sudden need looking after. Don’t men think about this kind of thing? And it was a female who had a gun.


I’ve mentioned Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We see fairly graphic images of the regular bombing by Americans in Japan.