Friday, March 16, 2012
*The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto
Melville House Publishing, 2011
originally published as Mizuumi, 2005
translated by Michael Emmerich
188 pp (trade paper ed.)
The most recent of Yoshimoto's novels to be translated into English, The Lake is a good read, one that won't take you long to finish. However, don't let the brevity of this book fool you: in its short length, it manages to touch upon issues of grief, trauma and family, and it offers a powerful surprise that is revealed near the end. It's a blend of the real and the fantastic; in some parts of the story you need to be prepared to suspend disbelief and just go with the flow.
The novel follows Chihiro, a young artist living in Tokyo whose mother has recently passed away. Her unmarried mother owned a bar, where she met Chihiro's father; the lack of a "normal" family structure didn't prevent Chihiro from having a good childhood, but thinking of what people might be saying about her -- "Sure, she’s the daughter of a prominent local figure, but c’mon—he knocked up the Mama-san of a bar, right?" -- left her feeling "oppressed." Chihiro leaves for Tokyo as soon as possible to go to art school; soon after moving from home her mother gets sick and ultimately dies. While dealing with her grief and looking back on her family life and her relationship with her mother, she meets Nakajima, a man with his own troubles. She senses right away that he has been through some terrible trauma, but never pushes the issue. Eventually she comes to be "awed by his terrible depths," but at the same time, she's drawn to this man, with whom she shares a number of similarities. Their relationship proceeds slowly and carefully; taking a new turn after Nakajima brings her with him on a visit to some old friends at his former home on a lake. As Nakajima's history is revealed, some interesting questions come to light regarding the importance of perspective -- one of the themes that runs throughout this novel.
The Lake is a mix of positives and negatives, but after all is said and done, what's good about this book outweighs what's not. The prose is understated and very simply expressed, while at the same time it is powerful enough so that the reader gets a clear picture of Chihiro as she tries to come to terms with her childhood, her family life and the death of her mother as she moves into another phase of her life. Nakajima is also drawn well -- a man of great intelligence, yet hampered from moving on by the effects of a mysterious trauma that consumes him. While ultimately his story is heartbreaking, the author is very clever not to make it the central focus of the novel and reveals it only toward the end of the story, making it all that much more powerful once the facts are brought to light. Chihiro is a likeable narrator, coming across as a real person throughout most of the story, using language normal people would use. Another very positive point about this novel is the lake, not only in terms of amazing description which throws the reader right into its misty atmosphere, but also in Chihiro's growing attraction to it and to the inhabitants of the lake house, one that even finds expression within the context of her mural as it increasingly becomes a part of her consciousness. On the other hand, I found the section on her refusal to incorporate a sponsoring company's logo within the mural she's painting a bit preachy and clichéd to the point of being very obvious; the same goes with her comments against homogeneity. Good messages both, but a little overplayed here.
I'd recommend The Lake, especially to people who have read Yoshimoto in the past, but with the caveat that compared to say, Kitchen (which I really, really liked), this one comes across a bit flat. I'd also recommend it to readers of Japanese fiction -- it maintains that edginess that is so characteristic of Japanese writing. It's a good read, very brief, but powerful.