A Reflection of Society

Bloggers are lovely people.  A while back, I left a comment on a post on Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake by Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers, in which I had a little whinge about not receiving a review copy of the book after someone from the publisher’s had actually contacted me first.  Not only did I get the sympathy I was after (I’m so transparent), but she actually offered to send me her review copy to add to my little library of J-Lit tomes!

Obviously, if the book turned out to be rubbish, I was going to feel very silly indeed.  Luckily though, that’s not the case.  The Lake is a very fine little novel, probably one of the best of the five Yoshimoto works I’ve read, and a very enjoyable way to spend New Year’s Day to boot (I ran through the whole thing in a matter of hours!).  Thanks Lisa 🙂

The Lake (translated by Michael Emmerich) introduces us to Chihiro, a woman approaching thirty, who earns a living painting murals on walls and buildings while she thinks about what she wants to do with her life.  As we enter her world, she has just begun a relationship with a neighbour, Nakajima, a rather intelligent young man with a disturbed, and disturbing, past – one that we (and Chihiro) will learn more about as the story progresses.  Chihiro senses that Nakajima’s fear of intimacy and social situations must be related to some kind of childhood trauma, but she is unwilling to push him into a confession, for fear of hurting him.  Then, one day, Nakajima asks Chihiro to accompany him on a journey into the past – a trip to visit some friends living beside a lake…

This journey to the lake is the key to understanding the novel, but Yoshimoto sensibly initially leaves things as vague and murky for the reader as the fog-bound body of water the couple first encounter.  We are gradually fed small pieces of information about Nakajima’s past, with the truth not coming out until about forty pages from the end.  Even then, there are things left unsaid, memories left untouched – and the book is the better for it.

Nakajima is ostensibly the character we should be interested in, but Chihiro herself is also an intriguing creation.  While she has not been subjected to the treatment Nakajima was forced to endure, she too, in her own way, has suffered from the way a certain group of people thinks you should live.  Living in an unorthodox family unit, simply because her father’s family, appalled by her mother’s lifestyle, refused to allow him to marry, Chihiro and her parents were left as a perfect nuclear family without the official social sanction.

For anyone who has lived in Japan, or read anything about its customs, the idea of a homogeneous society will be nothing new, and it is this issue which Yoshimoto constantly returns to in her fiction, the way outsiders have to find a place for themselves in a society which would rather they didn’t exist.  In many ways, the group that takes control of Nakajima is a microcosm of Japan itself, a community unwilling to accept difference and determined to make people conform to its own norms.  It is no coincidence that Chihiro and Nakajima are alike in their different approaches to life, or that their goal is to flee to Paris – often the only way for young Japanese to escape the constraints of family and social ties…

As for the lake itself, it’s a wonderful piece of imagery and symbolism, almost certainly containing the crux of the whole work – now, if only I knew what that actually was 😦  Perhaps a clue can be found in the way Mino, one of the friends living by the lake, insists that although the lake may seem still, it is in fact constantly changing with the seasons and with the activity on it – just like society itself…  Chihiro’s attempt then to recreate the lake in her mural could represent an attempt to reshape society to suit her own wishes and to make a place for the two young lovers to live without fear of outside interference.  Then again, I may just have been hitting the literary theory books too hard recently…

Whether any of this makes sense or not, what I’ve taken from reading The Lake is a sense that this is a very good book, one which lingers in the memory (unlike certain others of Yoshimoto’s works) and contains a lot more in its 188 pages than you might think.  I’m not sure that it’s the kind of book which wins prizes, but it’s certainly worthy of its place on the Man Asian Literary Prize long-list.  Like the body of water which gives the book its name, there’s definitely more to The Lake than meets the eye.

22 thoughts on “A Reflection of Society

  1. I'm looking forward to reading more Yoshimoto. I've read Asleep. I enjoyed it well enough at the time, but I've found myself still thinking about it once in a while. Definitely a sign that I liked it more than I thought I did!

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  2. Agree with your comment on Bloggers, I won my copy from the Wonderful Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza & have yet to read it, In fact although I have this & Kitchen I've not yet managed to read any of this writers work, which is seriously remiss of me.

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  3. Very nice review. She is one of my favourite writers and for a while I read all of her books (I think 5 so far)I didn't like Tsugumi so I stopped for a while. Not sure how many I missed. I got Sleep recently and want to read this one.

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  4. Stu – No worries Stu – hope you like it!

    wordsandpeace – I'll have to check out your review 🙂

    Terri – 'Asleep' is actually one I wasn't overly keen on (I was the opposite to you – I forgot most of it within a week!). I'd recommend this one, 'Kitchen' and 'Amrita'.

    Gary – Very remiss, especially if you won a copy 😉

    Caroline – 'Goodbye Tsugumi' isn't my favourite, but Yoshimoto is worth persevering with. By the way, what language did you read them in? I ask because it appears that there are far more of her books available in German than in English…

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  5. Hi Tony, this is a very good review, and – despite our contrasting opinions of the book – I accept many of your points. I maintain, though, that the misty lake is a cliche too far!!! Thanks for commenting on mine.

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  6. Thanks Mark 🙂 I agree that it was extremely convenient, probably a sign for the reader that they were about to leave the realm of the normal and slip into an alternate reality – 'The LaQe' perhaps 😉

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  7. Great review, Tony. AS you know, I've recently read her short story collection “Asleep” so I'm intrigued to read more of her work.

    I think your review has also helped me understand Japanese fiction a bit more. I've not been to Japan (but would desparately like to visit) so have wondered why so much of the fiction I've read (admittedly only a handful) cover similar themes, that of alienation and isolation. But I think your statement about outsiders having to “find a place for themselves in a society which would rather they didn't exist” explains it for me.

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  8. Judith – 'Kitchen' is a lovely little book, but at the end of the day, it's just a short two-part story and a little novella. I think people expect too much from it 🙂

    Mark – No, it was Murakami who had the ominous symbolic storm!

    Kim – It's the key to understanding a lot of modern Japanese writing. Japan is a fairly homogenous society where people are expected to preserve a careful face when dealing with people outside their family. This causes immense pressure for anyone who aspires to a different lifestyle – peer pressure is no laughing matter in Japan.

    The most recent generations reject the school-university-company-grave pathway (or for women, school-university-office lady-wife-grave), and that's where writers like Yoshimoto, Murakami and Hitomi Kanehara fit in (although Murakami is more of an elder statesman now).

    Lisa – Thanks again 🙂 I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting to (probably because I had fairly low expectations!). It will be interesting to see which of the two Japanese novels will be short-listed – I have a feeling that they'll be choosing just one of them…

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  9. I'm so glad to know that you have a copy; I can picture you spending New Year's Day reading it quite contentedly. I still have not read my own edition, but I was thrilled to read your review…thrilled to know you consider it one of Yoshimoto's best.

    This line in particular from your post resonated deeply within me: “the way outsiders have to find a place for themselves in a society which would rather they didn't exist.” I think this is one of the reasons I like Banana Yoshimoto's writing so much. She pierces the part of me which feels I don't belong, and I must admit it is a rather large part. I won't go into all the reasons here, suffice it to say that I loved your review and I'm all the more eager to read The Lake now.

    p.s. I'm glad I'm not the only one who sometimes wonders at the largest piece of symbolism in a novel. Maybe, as Murakami has said, it's open to the individual reader's interpretation. At least that's what I tell myself when I'm confused.

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  10. Interesting to read Caroline's comment about Goodbye Tsugumi. I must say I struggled with that, but definitely, definitely people should persist with Yoshimoto – N.P. remains my very favourite book. Interesting you enjoyed The Lake so much – so did I, but I've read several reviews that weren't particularly keen

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  11. Bellezza – You haven't read it? Do so immediately! 😉

    Symbolism is a wonderful thing, and I'm with Murakami here – sometimes even the writer doesn't know exactly what things are actually symbolising 😉

    Dan – 'Goodbye Tsugumi' is my least favourite of the five I've read so far, largely because of the childishness of the protagonists and their language… but we've been down this road before 🙂 I haven't read N.P., but that would probably be my next choice.

    As for the reviews – I have to say that I haven't read too many negative ones, and I don't think I've read any negative ones from people who have read a lot of her books…

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  12. I read a few of her novels in English but some in German and usually read Japanese literature in French or German. Like Murakami's latest novel they are mostly available long before.
    You could have reviewed Murakami far over half a year before anyone else. 🙂

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  13. Don't think I wasn't tempted 😉

    I have noticed that there are many more German translations available for certain Japanese writers than English ones (e.g. Kenzaburo Oe, Banana Yoshimoto) – one day, if I run out, I may need to resort to buying some in German…

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  14. That's why I read Hotel Iris ten years ago. I read it in French.
    I might review another author later this week of whom I've read more than one book but only one has been tralsted to English so far.

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