There is something idiosyncratic about Yoshimoto’s novels. Every time I read something of hers I feel almost comforted by how familiar it all is. Her narrators sound very much like the same person: they are young women prone to navel-gazing yet attuned to their environment (especially nature or their hometown). Moshi Moshi follows Yoshie after the death of her father, a musician and a bit of a free spirit. The way in which he died (he was involved in a suicide pact with a woman unknown to Yoshie or her mother) weighs on Yoshie. She dreams of the last night she saw him alive, imagining different outcomes that would have prevented him from leaving the house without his phone. Yoshie attempts to turn a new leaf by moving out to Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood in Tokyo, with which she fell in love. Her mother insists on staying with her, and the two women soon form a routine of sorts. One day, Yoshie, who works at a restaurant, meets a young man who knew of her father. In an effort to learn more about her father and ‘that woman’ Yoshie also reconnects with her father’s best friend.
The novel, overall, has a very ‘slice of life’ feel to it. Yoshimoto captures Yoshie’s daily life, the thoughts that pass through her head as she goes about on her day, the lingering grief caused by her father’s tragic death, the desire to understand how it could have happened. As much as I enjoyed the atmosphere and writing the romance aspect of this novel left a sour taste in my mouth. There are a few questionable remarks (for instance on sexual assault) that did not really fit with the narrative’s one. These kinds of comments were more suited to a dark comedy. The whole romance also gave me some incest-y vibes which I could have done without. Not Yoshimoto’s best but a lot more enjoyable than her worst.
disclaimer: this is less a review that a cathartic rant. If you want to read this book I recommend you check out other reviews instead.
Breasts and Eggs was an exceedingly frustrating and overlong novel. My interest in this novel was piqued by its title and the buzz around it. While the first three or four chapters were relatively entertaining, I soon became wary of its critique of gender. If you find it fulfilling to write poems about your menstrual blood maybe you will appreciate Kawakami’s brand of feminism. The first half of Breasts and Eggs is concerned with ‘breasts’. The novel is narrated by Natsuko, a woman in her thirties who lives in Tokyo and who aspires to be a writer. In this first section of the novel Natsuko’s 1st person narration is interrupted now and again by her niece’s diary entries. Midoriko is twelve (possibly thirteen? who knows) and she is feeling very angsty about puberty. She has stopped talking to her mother Makiko, Natsuko’s sister, who works as a hostess and is determined to get breast enhancement surgery. Midoriko and Makiko visit Natsuko in Tokyo, and they spend a few days together. Around the 40% mark the story jumps in time. Natsuko, now in her late thirties, is a respectable author who is considering artificial insemination in order to have a child. Midoriko and Makiko have short cameos towards the end of the novel but for the most part this section of the novel focuses on Natsuko wanting to have a child, interacting with colleagues and friends, attending events (related to her work and or to parenting/artificial insemination). I do not have many positives things to say (or write) about this book. What I did appreciate was the novel’s sense of place. It was especially interesting to read about the differences between Osaka and Tokyo (the dialect etc.). There was also an a scene that was pure absurd humour (when Natsuko meets that sperm donor). I kept reading hoping that the story (if we can call it such) wouldn’t unfold the way it did…but I was sadly proven right. Here is a list of things that I did not like about Breasts and Eggs:
1) Sort of feminist…? Maybe if your name happens to be J. K. Rowling you will find Kawakami’s feminist vision to be to your liking. I really thought that the title was challenging the idea that women are ‘breast and eggs’. But…it doesn’t. The first section makes it seem as if Natsuko, who makes it clear she does not like sex, does not want a partner or a child. Good for her, right? No. Of course not. When the biological clock strikes Natsuko decides that she wants a child because ‘reasons’ (she keeps insisting that she wants a child so she can ‘meet’ them…wtf?). While there are many single-mothers in this book, who are shown to do their best for their child, women over the age of 30 who do not have children are either A) miserable or B) traumatised. Type A chose her career over marriage and children, now she’s lonely and sad. When Natsuko tells her that she is planning to have a child A is bitter because she feels ‘betrayed’. Type B is the classic type who was sexually abused and believes that “life is pain” (that is an actual quote) and that being born is traumatic, and that the world is hell, and that you should not bring more children into it. To say that I am tired of these kinds of caricatures would be an understatement. The story implies that if you are a woman and you choose not to have children you will be lonely (as if not having children means that you cannot have friends or you can only be friends with people who are childless) and pathetic or traumatised. I really thought that the story would eventually introduce us to a woman who is happy and does not have children but nay. Midoriko’s diary entries were so ridiculous. She goes on about periods and vaginas…was this necessary? Her entries were far from revelatory, unless you happen to be someone who knows nothing about those things. And, can I say, it really annoyed me by the way the narrative would go on and on about menstruations. Not all women have them. Due to an ED I had a few period-free years. Did that make me less of a woman? By the way the author seems to elevate menstruations and I did not care for it. Midoriko’s diary was banal, it seemed a clumsy attempt to convey the hormonal mind of a soon to be teenage girl…in the second half of the novel Midoriko is no longer the focus of the story (thank God) but Natsuko informs of the following: “Midoriko was cute, but she didn’t care much for makeup or fashion. She was not your average girl, as if that wasn’t clear enough from her strong personality.” Pfft. In other words, Midoriko is Not Like Other Girls.™ Now onto more dodgy things…There is a scene in which our MC misgenders someone. And you might argue that my feathers were ruffled because I do not understand that not all cultures are as woke as Britain or the US…but hey, I actually come from a not very LGBTQ+ friendly country so I could have looked past this scene…but one thing is using the wrong pronouns, one thing is having your protagonist be fascinated with the genitals of the person she misgenders (“I tried seeing what the tomboy had between her legs”). Was this whole scene necessary? No. And the whole policing bathrooms just stinks of J. K. Rowling. The story is also very on the nose when it comes to the imbalance between wife and husband. An unhappy friend of Natsuko describes being a wife as “Free labor with a pussy.” Such feminism!
2) The story = Fake deep navel-gazing Every person Natsuko encounters tells her their life story or philosophy. Apparently this is because Natsuko worked in a bar and people just naturally confide in her. Okay, whatever, I’ll believe that. But, the things the people speak to her about are so…unbelievable? They will say fake deep shit and then the narrative will go along with it? Rather than pointing out how trite they are being. A lot of the characters will say things along the lines of ‘What is the point in life? / What does it mean to be alive? / Is love a human construct?’. Painful stuff I tell you. I rolled my eyes one too many times. Natsuko’s inner monologue was mostly navel-gazing. Yet, her thoughts are presented in a way that suggests they ought to be taken seriously (“ Life is hard, no matter the circumstances.” Geez. Wow. Such insight into human existence. So deep. Much wow). Her observations about marriage and parenting are also puddle-deep: “Think of all the husbands and wives trying to have kids, and all the couples having sex who could wind up having a baby. Could all of them look each other in the eye and say they really, truly knew each other?” Can anyone claim they know anyone? Mind-blowing. When Natsuko is thinking of the reason why she wants to have a child she thinks the following: “What did it even mean to “meet” someone? I”. Uuuuugh.
3) Repetition / Boring Breasts and Eggs was originally published in 2008 as a novella, and only later on did Kawakami expand it to a length novel. This is maybe the reason why she repeats the same information again and again. Trust your readers for goodness’ sake! Natsuko repeats the same information in the same way time and again (she tells us that she hasn’t published a book in awhile, and then, a few pages later, she tells us that she hasn’t published a book in awhile). This novel could have easily been 100 even 200 pages shorter. All those scenes about Natsuko meeting up with inconsequential people or looking stuff up about artificial insemination…they could have been cut down.
4) The body is abject We get it the human body sucks (“My complexion was horrendous, and my face was lifeless. I reminded myself of pickled eggplant. Not the skin, but the greenish flesh inside”) and ugly (I swear the book was obsessed with uberly skinny women: “Her legs stuck out from her coat like poles,” / “her collarbones were so pronounced you could’ve hooked your finger on them.”). Being alive is painful, occupying a body is painful, yadda yadda yadda. Existence is agony. It seems that the author had to make a point of reminding us of every aspect of the human body and bodily fluids (we are told about Natsuko’s yeballs, lungs, throat, spit, bile, oily skin, and pee)…and I just did not care for any of it.
5) What was the point? Really, what was the point? The book equates women to breast and eggs. The feminism in this novel is dusty, the story drags, the characters are caricatures, our main character is a self-pitying wishy-washy forgettable narrator…the half-hearted examination of parenthood/motherhood hardly makes up for the rest.
disclaimer: in the below review I am expressing my own entirely subjective opinion. I do not wish to invalidate anyone’s feelings or thoughts about this book. If you loved it or liked it, huzzah! If you are thinking of reading this I recommend you check out some more positive reviews.
Touring the Land of the Dead comprises two short stories. The first one follows Natsuko who is travelling with her husband, who after an unspecified neurological disease requires walking aids (he sometimes walks with a cane or uses a wheelchair). The way the narrative treats Taichi’s disability is somewhat…questionable? Then again, I also recognise that many countries treat those with visible disabilities as ‘undesirable’ or ‘pitiable’ (I myself come from a country that isn’t exactly disability-friendly). Anyhow, Natsuko is going to this spa with Taichi, hoping for…rest? I don’t know. It wasn’t very clear. All the while we get pages and pages of flashbacks which give us unnecessary glimpses into Natsuko’s relationship with her horrid mother and dick of a brother. Natsuko is a kind of Cinderella who is ill-treated by her awful and greedy family. They treat her poorly, throw abuse at her, use her as a monetary source, and even behave abhorrently towards Taichi, who is shown to be kind and respectful towards them. I would have much preferred for these flashbacks to be focused on Natsuko and Taichi, as opposed her unpleasant relatives. The prose was uninspiring and occasionally clunky. At times dialogues had quotation marks, at times they were in italics (and no, it wasn’t as if one indicated a conversation occurred in the past and the other in the ‘now’). I’m afraid I found this to be boring, unconvincing, and utterly forgettable. The second story, ‘Ninety-Nine Kisses’, was a mess. I have no idea what it was trying to achieve but…bleargh. The narrative seemed to equate incest-y thoughts with quirkiness…which did little other than alienate me. Overall, I had a hard time immersing myself into these stories. Usually while I read I am ‘pulled’ into a story, but here…nothing happened. I read some words. That’s that.
ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Considering that Hiromi Kawakami is one of my favourites authors this was a big letdown. The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino lacked the zing that made Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop into such fun and engaging reads. Nishino, the novel’s central character, is a boring creep and I could not for the life of me understand why so many women cared for him.
The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino is divided in ten chapters, each one narrated by one of Nishino’s ‘loves’. The chapters do not follow a linear structure, so Nishino’s life is given to us in an almost fragmented way. The women Nishino loves easily blend together as they all shared the same kind of voice. I did not find them as likeable as the protagonists of Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop and maybe that’s because much of their narrative focuses on the relationship they have with Nishino. Most of them realise that Nishino is bad news who cheats and is emotionally unavailable. Yet, usually after they claim to dislike him, they will confess that they are on the verge of falling in love with him. Alas, because of ‘reasons’, they break up. The Nishino that emerges from these accounts is that of a pathetic and needy man who habitually lies. He has 0 charisma, here are two examples of some of his lines that make his ‘loves’ ‘giggle’: “Girls’ bottoms are always so cool, so smooth—I love them . . .” and “I love women’s breasts,”. Wow…isn’t he a poet? Nishino is troubled and ‘broken’ and the women he loves pity him for it, hoping that one day he will find a woman good enough to ‘fix’ him (ugh).
minor spoilers ahead The thing is, Nishino is a shit. He obviously does not care to have consensual sex with his ‘loves’: “I said, Stop, over and over, each time he quietly replied, I will not stop.” and “Hey, let’s have sex right now,” Nishino said. And then, without waiting for my response, he took me roughly.”. He has sister issues, boo-fucking-hoo. Give me a break. The guy is a massive creep. He jokes to one of his ‘loves’ that he will marry his daughter (who is a child). Was it supposed to be funny? Coming from a guy who then at the age of fifty starts a sexual relationship a woman thirty years his junior? I also did not care for the whole ‘breast milk scene’ involving Nishino and his sister. Surely that would not be the only way of ‘easing’ her pain (this is the third book I have read this year with weird breast milk scenes and I can safely say that I care little for this trend).
If you are thinking of reading something by Kawakami, I strongly recommend you pick up Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop instead of this.
The Lake is narrated by the quintessential Banana Yoshimoto protagonist. While Yoshimoto’s sparse yet dreamy makes for an easy reading experience this is definitely not one of her ‘strongest’ novels. Chihiro, daughter of an ‘unconventional’ couple, moves to Tokyo in order to pursue a career graphic artist. She’s still grieving her mother’s death and spends most of her time on her own. One day, as she is staring out of her window, she sees a young man staring back from a window across the street. The two quickly form a bond and begin to spend their spare time together. Nakajima, who has also lost his mother, is somewhat unwilling to discuss his past with Chihiro and when their relationship becomes more of a romance it becomes clear to her that he must have experience some childhood trauma. This short novel is definitely not plot-oriented as the narrative mainly consists in Chihiro either navel-gazing or pronouncing two-bit aphorisms. While Yoshimoto does evoke the places and sensations Chihiro visits/experiences, The Lake lacked the atmosphere and feeling of Kitchen an Umi no Futa (which I believe has yet to be translated in English). And whereas I usually enjoy how nostalgic ambience of her work, The Lake just came across as dated. Chihiro seems almost to relish the idea that Nakajima may be deeply traumatised and we also have a side-character who is affected by a mysterious illness and bed bound yet she is also omniscient and able to speak through others… Overall, this was definitely one of Yoshimoto’s more banal stories as it lacked that vital zing which usually makes her books such zesty reads.
“The only place she could now go to freely from her bedroom was the castle. If I’m in the castle, she started to think, then I’ll be safe. Only the castle beyond the mirror could offer her complete protection.”
Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a heartfelt slice of life novel with a magical twist. Personally, I don’t think that this novel has much in common with Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman…while I understand that yes, they both are authored by Japanese women and yes, they both are concerned with mental health but story and style wise the two have nothing in common. Lonely Castle in the Mirror is closer to the work of Ghibli (more When Marnie Was There than Spirited Away) or anime such as AnoHana or Orange. Lonely Castle in the Mirror is told by third-person narrator that primarily focuses on Kokoro, who is in seventh grade (first year of junior high). Kokoro, however, no longer attends school. The prospect of going to her class fills her with such unease that she often experiences anxiety-induced stomach aches. She’s unwilling to ‘confess’ to her mother the reason why she stopped going to school and spends her days at home, trying and failing not to think about her classmates. One day she notices a weird light emanating from within her mirror and finds herself transported into a castle that seems to belong in a faerie tale. Kokoro, alongside six other children/teenagers, has been selected by the Wolf Queen (whose appearance is that of small girl wearing a wolf mask) who informs them that within the castle is a key and whoever finds it will be granted a wish. The magical castle has opening hours and if they fail to leave by 5pm they will be eaten by wolves. The castle will be available to them for a year, until the end of March (school years in Japan go from April to March).
While this summary makes this story sound like a fantastical adventure, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is more of a character-driven story that just happens to take place in a magical castle. Kokoro and the other students spend most of their time playing games and slowly getting to know each other. For the majority of the novel they do not seem overly interested by the promise of a ‘wish’, nor are they worried by the possibility of being eaten by wolves. The castle becomes their playroom, a safe space in which they do not have to think about their home-lives. Although they differ in age they are all in junior high. While they realise immediately that they have all stopped going to school, they do not often broach this topic. Overtime however they get to know each other. There are a few disagreements now and again, and their bond with each another is not always an easy or drama free one. Still, in spite of their different background and interests they do begin to view their time together as an escape from their intolerable ‘reality’.
While Mizuki Tsujimura touches upon sobering topics—such as bullying, domestic and sexual abuse—these do not weigh down her narrative. When discussions around these subjects crop up the author demonstrates great sensitivity and empathy. The friendship that blossoms between Kokoro and the others makes for some tender scenes. The ‘revelation’ behind the castle and the reason why they were chosen will probably were not all that ‘surprising’. Still, even if readers know more than Kokoro or the other characters, this will probably not detract any enjoyment from their reading experience (the story has a lot to offer without those final ‘twists’). While I understand why the narrative mainly stuck to Kokoro, part of me wished that the story could have also focused on the other characters. Tsujimura certainly captures the anxiety and fear that many feel at the prospect of going to school. When I dropped out of high school I felt much of what Kokoro was feeling.
“School was everything to her, and both going and not going had been excruciating. She couldn’t consider it only school.”
Although the castle lies inside of a mirror, it did not feel all that magical. There are very few descriptions about the way it looks, and I think that the story would have benefited from having a more vividly rendered setting. And, maybe I would have liked the story even more if there had been more fantastical elements (the Wolf Queen makes an appearance now and again but other than that the castle is very much like an ordinary playroom). Towards the end the story definitely has more of a fantasy feel and really reminded of a Ghibli film. Overall, I did enjoy this novel. I think Tsujimura’s narrative succeeds in being both gentle and emotional. She allows time for her characters to develop and learn to get to know and care for each other. Kokoro, in particular, is given a satisfying character arc. Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a novel about friendship, realistic issues (such as bullying), self-acceptance with some magical undertones.
Where the Wild Ladies Are is a collection of short stories that traditional Japanese folktales a modern and feminist twist. The premise behind these stories is certainly interesting and I would probably recommend it even if it didn’t quite ‘work’ for me. Most of Aoko Matsuda’s stories are interconnected as they feature recurring characters and places. I quite liked this aspect of the collection as I was curious to discover how certain stories were related to other ones. The surreal atmosphere and zestful tone lend this collection a rather offbeat quality that brought to mind authors such Kevin Wilson and Hilary Leichter. These stories are unapologetically weird as they are populated by quirky characters facing some peculiar scenarios. Ghosts seem to be the norm and many characters undergo fantastic transformations.
My favourite stories were the very first two in the collection. One stars a woman who has been recently ‘dumped’ by her boyfriend. She spends time and money in order to enhance her looks (hair removal galore) but finds herself questioning existing beauty standards when her body hair begins to have a life of its own…and yeah, she also happens to talk who to her aunt who is a ghost. The following story has a vaguely Kafkaesque feel to it as it focuses on a unemployed man who finds himself answering the door to an unusual sales duo. The subsequent stories, in comparison, were very uneven. They had some interesting elements but they would eventually peter out, leaving me kind of wanting more and questioning what was the point of story itself. The writing was okay. It wasn’t particularly funny or insightful. The feminist ‘twists’ were kind of there…but kind of not. At the end we get brief summaries of the folktales that inspired each chapters but I still could not really see how Matsuda’s stories were all that empowering for women (yes, she acknowledges sexual misconduct in the workplace or that woman are often regarded as wives or mothers but acknowledging these things hardly means challenging them). Still I do think Matsuda presents her readers with a vivid portrayal of Japanese culture and society today. If you enjoy eccentric stories with a dose of magical realism you might want to give this collection a chance.
“It’s my belief that everything in this world has its own language. We have the ability to open up our ears and minds to anything and everything. That could be someone walking down the street, or it could be the sunshine or the wind.”
Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste is a gentle and life-affirming novel (novella?). The book’s central figures are discriminated against because of their pasts: Sentaro is a middle aged man who works at a dorayaki shop has a criminal record; Tokue, an elderly woman, had leprosy as a teen and was subsequently forced into exile in a leprosarium. Sentaro is unenthusiastic about his job and future, seeming resigned to a life of despondency. This changes when Tokue begins working alongside him. Although Sentaro is initially reluctant to let Tokue work with him he changes his mind once he tastes her delicious bean paste. Tokue’s dedication to this culinary process earns his respect and loyalty but the shop sees an increase in customers. However, gossip about Tokue’s disfigured hands threatens Sentaro’s newfound happiness. As the cover and title suggest this was a very sweet read. While the tone of the story was by no means schmaltzy, there were times in which the narrative struck me as a bit too fluffy (i.e. not particularly deep). Sentaro is a fairly simple character and to be honest I didn’t find him nearly as half compelling as Tokue. The narrative does shed light on how harmful stigmas can be as well as providing information relating to the history of leprosy in Japan. I do wish that Tokue had remained the focus of the narrative as Sentaro and the schoolgirl (who was an entirely forgettable character) were very dull by comparison. Still, even if this isn’t a particularly complex or thought-provoking story I do think that it will appeal to fans of The Housekeeper and the Professor as it has a similarly tranquil atmosphere.
Comparing this novel to the work of Ottessa Moshfegh or Sayaka Murata seems somewhat misleading, if a bit lazy. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job has elements that may bring to mind certain aspects of Convenience Store Woman but it has almost nothing in common with My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Still, I could have enjoyed Kikuko Tsumura’s novel if it had something interesting to say or if it was written in a particularly inventive or catchy way. Sadly, I found There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job to be an exceedingly boring story that is written in an exceedingly boring way. Some of the issues I had may be due the translation (more on that later) but for the most part Tsumura’s prose is kind of dull. Her protagonist, the classic unnamed narrator, lacks the deadpan tone of Murata’s mc, nor does she have the same upbeat voice as the lead in Temporary (a novel that explores modern workplace in an absurdist fashion). Tsumura’s book is divided in five sections, each one focusing on a different job: in the first one our mc works a surveillance job (this happened to be the only section I enjoyed), in the second one she records ads for a bus company (advertising the shops that are on the route of that bus), in the third one she has to come up with ‘fun/useful facts’ for a packet of crackers, in the third one she puts posters up, and in the final job she works at a park maintenance office. We never gain any real insight into her private life (I’m fairly sure she lives alone and her parents are still alive) and we never learn anything about her past (other than she left her job because of burnout syndrome). The jobs she are peculiar and yet they never held my interest. I liked Temporary much more because the jobs the mc does there are really weird. Yet, I think I could have tolerated reading about a relatively ordinary workplace if the dialogues or mc’s inner monologue had been amusing, as they are in Murata’s novel (which managed to make tedious tasks entertaining). Even if I where to judge Tsumura’s novel without drawing comparison to other novels, I still can’t think of anything positive to say about it. The narration lacked zest, oomph. She recounts her routine in a very prosaic way, and she offers no real insights into why ‘modern’ work culture makes her feel so uninspired. Usually when I read a translated book I don’t really notice that the prose was not originally written in the language I’m reading but here the writing had this stilted quality that made me kind of aware that I was indeed reading a translation. Certain word choices struck me as awkward. There are many instances in which the narrator’s colloquial style is interrupted by high-register and or antiquated words (such as nigh!). Maybe this was simply reflecting the original Japanese but I can’t say for sure as I’m afraid my knowledge of Japanese is abysmal. And yes, I understand that translation is not an easy chore (in the past I tried my hand at translating) but that doesn’t change that the prose There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job offers some eyebrow-raising phrases/passages.
Usually I read books of this length in two or three days but it took me five days to finish this novel (and I nearly fell asleep while reading it…which is new for me).
In The Setting Sun Osamu Dazai captures a nation in transition. Set during the early postwar years Japan this novella is centred on an aristocratic family fallen on hard times. Kazuko, our narrator, and her fragile mother who are forced to move to the countryside and give up their family home. Gentile Kazuko has no options left but work in the fields. She slowly begins to fear that this menial labour will make her spiritually and physically ‘coarse’. Kazuko laments what she perceives as a decline in moral standards, which she attributes to the rapid industrialisation and Westernisation of her country. Kazuko’s brother return to Japan causes further distress. Naoji is now addicted to opiodis and his presence in the household upsets Kazuko. His cynicism and cruelty do little to assuage their mother. As the narrative progresses we are introduced to Mr. Uehara, a writer and an acquaintance of Naoji. While I was interested in Dazai’s mediations on class, nobility, and the right to die, as well as his navigating the dichotomy between tradition and modernity, I was ultimately underwhelmed by The Setting Sun. Perhaps this is because Kazuko and Naoji’s voices at times were almost interchangeable, or maybe I was never convinced by the character of Kazuko (especially when it came to the man she loves). At times Dazai seemed more interested in rendering the aesthetics of existentialism than of truly delving beneath his character’s surface.