I gave it a chance, hoping it wouldn’t be what I was expecting...but it was what I was expecting, in spades.
I thought it was too unnecesarily grim, and reading it felt a bit like people who slow down to stare at a car wreck.
I also thought there were problems with the structure of the story - the diaries were much too descriptive and novel-like, though they were supposed to be written by these average people.
I also think that individual situations seem realistic, but overall the effect is that the entire story comes across as too much. I just had a hard time buying that the uncle would go back again and again and again through the horrors. It seemed less realistic and more like a lazy plot device just to give the author chance after chance to describe different horrors. My best guess is that it came from the author wanting to fit so many of the real-life accounts he’d heard into the story and just shoved them in here and there and everywhere and made his characters’ actions conform so that they could either experience or see or hear them.
Also, I don’t mind moral ambiguity in books, but I did find a situation questionable: the protagonist family’s wanting to hide the niece’s sickness from her suitor. What I didn’t like is not that they would do that, for I like complex characterisations, but that the author described it in a passing way as if there were nothing wrong with it and that we should be sympathetic to the family and agree with what they’re doing.
One thing I did like was the ambiguous ending, and especially the realistic ambiguity that, even though we don’t know, the niece will probably die soon, but that there’s always hope.
I think it’s too bad the author spent so much time on Hiroshima honestly because I thought those were some of the weaker-written parts of the book. His best parts were the small town life, and especially the few remembrances of it pre-war. To finish on a positive note, here’s one of my favourite passages from the book, when the uncle is remembering a big old gingko tree in the small town that they're from that used to stand by a neighbour's house before it was chopped down for wood for the war effort:
When the frosts came and the gingko tree began to shed its leaves, the roof of Kotaro's house would be transformed into a yellow roof, smothered with dead leaves. Whenever a breeze sprang up, they would pour down from the eaves in a yellow waterfall, and when it eddied they would swirl up into the air - up and up to twice, three times the height of the roof - then descend in yellow whirlpools onto the road up the slope and onto the oak grove.
This always delighted the children. As the wind dropped and the leaves came dancing down, the boys would stretch up their hands to clutch at them, and the girls would catch them in their outspread aprons.