Intense and kaleidoscopic, Secrets of the Sun tells the story of author Mako Yoshikawa’s physicist father, Shoichi Yoshikawa. A brilliant researcher into nuclear fusion, a man with bipolar disorder, and a violently abusive father and husband, he does not have a story that can be approached linearly. His daughter’s choice to structure this book as a memoir in essays reflects her fragmentary knowledge of him, as well as her emotionally complex mission to understand the forces that shaped him.
In the decades after Mako’s mother, an accomplished artist and author, “packed us up and fled his house under police protection,” Shoichi’s adult daughters negotiated partial estrangements from him. Mako learned of his death from natural causes the night before her wedding, to which Shoichi had not been invited. This memoir is particularly brilliant at capturing the grief, guilt and fear adult survivors of childhood abuse face when deciding how or whether to maintain a relationship with their abusive parent. The love beneath these more difficult emotions animated Mako’s pursuit of her father’s mysterious inner world.
The many facets of Shoichi’s personality emerge through these essays: his genius as a Princeton University physicist, his early optimism that he would be able to channel the power of the sun into usable energy here on Earth, his arrogance and resentment as funding for fusion research dried up, his love for cross-dressing, his experiences with racism as a Japanese immigrant living in 1960s Princeton, New Jersey, and his dangerous manic episodes. After his death, his former colleagues praised his brilliance and mourned the mental illness that destroyed his career.
“My Father’s Women,” Yoshikawa’s award-winning 2012 essay published in The Missouri Review, forms the foundation of Secrets of the Sun. Unwinding her father’s relationships with women is one way that Yoshikawa seeks to understand him. “He’d been adored by wives, lovers, and girlfriends,” she writes. “Had my father ever loved anyone? I doubted it, but the truth was I didn’t know.” Perhaps the most important of these women is Mako herself, whose memoir seeks to understand, with love, a father devoted only to the stars.