John Leonard Nominations

Leonard Prize 2020: Inheritors

By Ethan Chatagnier

NBCC members: If you’d like to contribute a review of an eligible book for the 2020 Leonard Prize, write to NBCC board member Megan Labrise at Read the rest of the reviews here.

Inheritors by Asako Serizawa (Doubleday)

It’s not often you pick up a book—let alone a debut—that holds up to the best of W.G. Sebald. That’s the case with Asako Serizawa’s Inheritors. Like Sebald, Serizawa explores the way war punctures history, causing an irreconcilable moral collapse.

This collection of dark, elegantly philosophical stories investigates characters who suffer abuses, those who commit them, and those who exist in between. Linked collections often tie together disparate stories as a gimmick. These stories are intricately collaged to amplify their power, giving the effect of a loose-structured novel.

The horrors of the European theater of World War II are so overwhelming as to seem singular. Serizawa illuminates the abuses of Japan against Chinese citizens, Korean citizens, and Japanese citizens themselves, while also noting the abuses of the United States against Japan during the war and occupation. In a sense, the country at hand matters less than the divide between the citizen and the state. Biological experimentation, sexual slavery and labor conscription, political repression—these are the acts of political states as amoral beasts lumbering towards their own self-interest. 

The characters in Inheritors are caught in the paths of those beasts, too small to be noticed or change the course of events around them. What’s most remarkable, though, is the way the book moves into the 21st century, leaving the reader to reckon with the urgent question of whether history is doomed to repeat itself. As much as any other in recent years, this book synthesizes our chaotic present with the disasters of our past and future.