Among the masters of ukiyo-e, the sublime Japanese block-prints that deeply influenced Western artists such as Degas and Cézanne, Hokusai (1760-1849) stands out for his fluid, kinetic lines and almost Day-Glo use of color. Few works inspire awe and existentialist dread as his most famous print, “The Wave,” which depicts a swell that towers over Lilliputian boats, whitecaps like spiky tentacles, a miniature Mount Fuji in the background.

Waves of various threats are commonplace in earthquake-prone Japan, but nothing quite compares to the tsunami that struck the northeastern coast of Honshu, the archipelago’s largest island, on the flurry-flecked afternoon of March 11, 2011. In his vivid, suspenseful “Ghosts of the Tsunami,” British journalist Richard Lloyd Parry opens with his own account of that day in Tokyo, which began when he and his pregnant wife saw a sonogram of their son for the first time.

At his desk that afternoon, Lloyd Parry felt the torque and pull of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, which caused relatively little structural damage, given the country’s rigorous construction codes. The damage came in the north about an hour later.

No one guessed the peril, despite the government’s sirens and broadcasts, largely because the electrical grid had been knocked out. Lloyd Parry wisely keeps to a tight focus: the Okawa Primary School, tucked along the Kitakami River just before it empties into Oppa estuary, a natural funnel for the tsunami. He re-creates the tragic events in a cinematic style reminiscent of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” weaving in and out of the central mystery — what happened to the students and teachers of Okawa in the tense minutes between quake and wave — with the inky shadow that eclipses the parents who dredge through mud and silt for weeks, searching for a hand or shoe that would mark a corpse. There’s a harrowing intimacy here, as he brings us into families senseless with grief, the desire for a justice that eludes them.

With Okawa as the hub, Lloyd Parry pokes into other lives. The teacher who scrambled up a hill just as a surge of water crashed into the school and was bent over with trauma afterward. The Zen priest who presided over scores of silent funerals. The centenarian athlete Takashi Shikomara, who “had lived through the 1933 tsunami, the Chile tsunami of 1960, and countless minor waves and false alarms … he had talked of the forthcoming athletics championship when he would compete within the over-105 age group. Without question, he would have set new world records — he would, literally, have been in a class of his own.”

Lloyd Parry’s elegant, clear-eyed prose allows him to circle ever closer to the heart of Okawa’s mystery — why virtually all the children there died, unlike any other school in the country. Part detective story, part cultural history, part dirge, “Ghosts of the Tsunami” probes the scars of loss and the persistence of courage in the face of unspeakable disaster.

 

Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing,” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.

Ghosts of the Tsunami
By: Richard Lloyd Parry.
Publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 295 pages, $27.