Southern Fried Sushi is a sermonizing novel. This isn’t a criticism, per se. Sewell’s Black Beauty, hailed as a classic, is sermonizing. Dante’s classic poem The Divine Comedy is sermonizing. For some Christians, such reads can be edifying, serving to reinforce one’s faith. For the Christian like me who prefers subtlety, however, these authors approaches are, at times, too preachy.
In Spinola’s defense, she can write. Her narrative is particularly good. The story itself is well plotted, coherent, and touching. Characters are well defined. Several scenes moved me emotionally, including, admittedly, a few of these sermonizing scenes. And that’s what storytelling is all about. But because the protagonist struggles with her disbelief while her new-found friends offer answers to dispel her reservations, sometimes lengthy answers, these numerous scenes serve to address the average nonbeliever’s misconceptions about the faith too blatantly for my blood.
While I can sympathize with a writer inclined to testify to her faith or make the case for Christianity, I’m not this novel’s intended audience since I much prefer a story with a moral rather than a sermon posing as a story. Having said that, I recognize, as a writer who has read several books on storytelling, every good story, religious or otherwise, makes a moral argument.
It ultimately boils down to the individual reader’s sensibilities. For example, I’ve read more than a few novels written by Christians who achieved the same objective in ways I found far more tactful, tasteful. Modern Christian writers such as Lisa Sampson and Tosca Lee, what few books I’ve read of theirs (I highly recommend Lee’s novels The Legend of Sheba and Iscariot), never stop their stories to explore the minutia of their faith. Rather their stories offer a more sophisticated approach by way of hints and suggestions. Their moral argument never hits you over the head.
Indeed, one of the reasons I so love the timeless novels of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and George MacDonald is because these guys were writers first. Tolkien allegedly wrote in a letter, ‘The Lord of the Rings began implicitly Catholic and ended explicitly so.’ Yet at no point throughout the trilogy is there a single reference to Catholicism or Christianity or The Bible.
I don’t doubt these men’s faith was of the upmost importance to them in their personal lives, but when it came to their novels, they didn’t compromise their art for the sake of a sermon. Instead, their faith shined through as a result of their sincerity and devotion to their writing craft. Their themes were woven into their stories in thoughtful, suggestive, and never obtrusive ways.
Another good example would be Graham Greene’s exquisite novel The Power and the Glory. Greene (another Catholic) never pauses to remind you of the historical horrors of an atheist socialist who hates the church, rounding up priests and executing them in the Mexican state of Tabasco in the 1930s. Instead, the moral argument is made clear by way of the story itself and the poignant scenes throughout which focus on character and plot development.
But let’s return to Southern Fried Sushi. Shiloh is a young, modern American woman living in Japan and working for the Associated Press until she learns that her self-destructive mother has died. She flies back home to Staunton, Virginia to attend the funeral. There she discovers from her mother’s friends, most of whom are simple Christians with southern hospitality oozing from their ears, that Shiloh’s mother had found religion and devoted her remaining years to helping the deaf and blind.
So far so good, as they say. Over the course of getting her bearings in a new town and attending her mother’s funeral, Shiloh befriends these hayseeds with reservations. Sure. They’re gracious, generous, and apparently sincere. And she’s humbled by their hospitality. At the same time, she’s irritated by their religiosity. She has convinced herself, as most modern, nonreligious people do, that faith is a crutch, most likely a fiction, and that she can succeed well on her own without relying on some pie in the sky belief.
Meanwhile, Shiloh discovers, by way of phone, text messages, and Skype, that back in Japan her fiancé Carlos, a fiery Spaniard, is cheating on her. We as readers already know Shiloh, pressed for time, plagiarized an article for the Associated Press before boarding her flight from Japan to Virginia. In the interim, her boss back in Japan finds out about her unethical blunder and fires her.
Without a job in Japan, she has no valid visa for returning there. Now she’s stuck with all these backwoods rednecks in Staunton, in mounting credit card debt, unemployed, and bucking at these native southerners’ lack of sophistication and poor grammar.
Despite Shiloh’s smug exterior, however, anxiety has set in. As she prepares to sell her late mother’s house, utility bills accumulate. She needs a job, maybe two. But the prospect of employment at a local Barnes & Noble and then, concurrently, as a waitress at a local restaurant, are such blows to her ego, such steep steps down from her career as an AP writer, she initially feels humiliated and ashamed.
Gradually, after a series of scenes intended to address the modern secularist’s reservations regarding Christianity, Shiloh gradually discovers her misconceptions were only that. Indeed, as she explores The Bible, she realizes the faith makes sense. She needs God in her life.
It’s a touching story, with a balanced amount of well composed detail. Apart from the sermonizing, my only other complaint is with the format. My Kindle version had errors. (I blame the conversion software.) Words would be pressed together in places, with no spaces between them. At other times, lines would drop arbitrarily midway across the page and resume on a line below it. Additionally, several times dialogue between two people would share the same paragraph.
Such interruptions drew me out of the moment every time. However, excluding these software hiccups and the sermons about Christianity via elongated conversations and testimonials, and instead reminded of the emotionally powerful moments and solid narrative, I give this novel four out of five stars. Rated PG