Today’s post sees my review of the first of the two January in Japan group reads, and while the writer is very familiar, the book itself is perhaps less well known. It’s the story of a woman trying to find herself, and looking in one particular place… The weather’s nice – let’s take a trip to the coast 😉
Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru (translated by Michael Emmerich) is centred on Kei, a middle-aged woman living with her daughter, Momo, and her mother back in the family home. Twelve years ago, her husband, Rei, vanished without a word, and while her life has stabilised to a certain extent, thanks in part to a relationship with a married man, she certainly has a lot of unfinished business.
One day, on a whim, Kei sets off for the seaside town of Manazuru, hoping to find answers in the course of her travels. It’s the first of several visits, and the only one she spends alone. On the next outing, she’s accompanied by her daughter; after that, her companion is someone slightly less familiar…
Kawakami is well known for her novel The Briefcase (AKA Strange Weather in Tokyo), and for those who have already tried that one, Manazuru may come as a bit of a surprise. It’s certainly a little darker and edgier, with a more surreal style in parts than The Briefcase. Of course, with only the two novels out in English, who’s to say which is the more representative of her style.
The main theme explored in the novel is that of letting go and finding closure. Kei, understandably, was shattered by Rei’s disappearance, and you get the sense that her daughter and her mother have been tip-toeing around her for a long time – only now are questions being asked about Rei, and the couple’s life together. Through fleeting glimpses of a diary in which we see random messages, and Kei’s flashbacks to Rei’s (imagined) affair, we start to piece together what actually happened. The truth is, though, that we are just as confused as Kei herself is.
One of the coping strategies she uses is her long-term affair with Seiji, a married man, a relationship which definitely feels like a crutch to help her carry on:
“To become involved is not to be close. It isn’t exactly to be distant, either. When two people become involved, and also when they do not, there is, always, a little separation.”
p.7 (Counterpoint Press, 2010)
While she seems like the clingy one, the truth is that Seiji’s stand-offishness is more of a defence mechanism – he senses that Kei still has another man in her life…
A large part of the book is about the relationship between the three women. Having returned to her family home after her husband’s disappearance, Kei is now one of three generations of women under the one roof:
“Now that we were living together again, were we close? Three women, our three bodies. Like spheres joined in motion, that is how we are. Not concentric spheres, each sphere cradles its own center, not flat but full, that is how we are.” (p.21)
With Momo going though her teens, Kei is trying to hold onto her daughter’s love, regretting the loss of the closeness they once shared. Only gradually does she realise that her mother feels the same way about her.
Of course, while the human is important, it’s the supernatural that stands out. The striking feature of Manazuru is the spirits that follow Kei around, appearing both at home and in public. While most are indistinct blurs, one eventually coalesces, a woman who keeps drawing Kei back to Manazuru, threatening to pull her across into the other realm:
“I notice, suddenly, that there is no sound at all.
Gripping my half-drunk cup of coffee in one hand, I have been gazing down at the woman’s face, reflected in the puddle. The size of a bean at first, it grew to walnut size, then finally assumed the the size of an actual human face.” (p.97)
It’s in this other realm that she hopes to finally find out what happened to Rei – but is he even there? What if her trips to the coast are all a big mistake?
Manazuru is a book I enjoyed a lot the first time around. It has a subtle style, written in short, clipped sentences, with a cinematic air to the whole story. In typically Japanese fashion, you sense that the important information remains unspoken, with much lying beneath the surface. Each of the main characters, while generally acting calmly, were adrift in a sea of emotions: Kei’s rage at Rei’s disappearance; Momo’s hurt and desperation; the Mother’s fury at her son-in-law and desire to help her daughter; and Seiji’s hidden desire to get closer to Kei.
However, when I looked at other’s comments, not everyone seems to have enjoyed it as much as I did, and on a second reading, a few weeks later, it did appear a little less appealing. The language was more troublesome on the second attempt – deliberately short and confronting, the spiky sentences sometimes get in the way of the reading. I also found Kei a little more annoying at times, and knowing where we were going, I actually found the story a little too vague this time around.
Most readers will prefer The Briefcase, but this is still a good read, one I’d recommend (particularly if you like the understated variety of J-Lit). If you want to see what others thought, check out the dedicated page over at the JiJ blog, and if that’s not incentive enough, I’ve got a few surprises for you. Kawakami may only have two novels translated into English, but the page does have a few other bits and pieces I’ve managed to dig up.
Off you go, then 😉