As mentioned a while back, I’ve been a little overwhelmed by work and family matters (quite apart from all the reading and blogging), so unfortunately I’m not running my January in Japan event this year, at least not in the overblown manner of the past three years. However, I am still planning to read and review some J-Lit, with posts on Japanese books scheduled for each #TranslationThurs in January (and possibly February too…). And if anyone wants to join me, just use the #JanuaryinJapan hashtag on Twitter to share your reading and posts 🙂
With that out of the way, let’s get down to the first of my Japanese reviews for 2016, and it’s yet another outing for a perennial JiJ favourite – although, when I say favourite… 😉
Goodbye Tsugumi (translated by Michael Emmerich, published by faber and faber) was actually the first Banana Yoshimoto book I ever read, but by some strange twist of fate, it has become the last of her works in English to be reviewed on the blog. The story is narrated by Maria, a young woman whose early life was full of uncertainty due to her unusual home circumstances. Her father is a Tokyo businessman, her mother his mistress, and with the father unable to obtain a divorce, Maria and her mother live in a small coastal town, helping out at the family inn, waiting for her father’s weekend visits.
The divorce finally comes through, and Maria and her parents begin a life as a real family in Tokyo, but part of her remains back on the coast. Even though her new life is happy, she misses the time spent with her cousins Yoko and Tsugumi in her hometown. The announcement that the inn is to be sold, then, comes as a shock, and Maria heads off for one last golden summer before the ties with her childhood disappear forever.
Which is one way of looking at the book… However, anyone who has read Goodbye Tsugumi will realise that much of the interest of the novel centres upon the title character. Tsugumi is a beautiful, frail young woman, ill since childhood, her tainted beauty a flame to the mothlike local youths. There’s one thing stopping her from being a classic Victorian-novel heroine, though:
It’s true: Tsugumi really was an unpleasant young woman.
p.1 (faber and faber, 2002)
No, really – in fact, that’s quite an understatement.
Where Maria, like the rest of her family, is a paragon of patience and amiability, Tsugumi’s unfortunate situation has twisted her personality, leading her to take advantage of her illness to terrorise all around her. Friends and family alike are on tiptoe around her lest they provoke a reaction, and yet in a strange way, she has a certain undeniable appeal:
It wasn’t narcissism. And it wasn’t exactly an aesthetic. Deep down inside, Tsugumi had this perfectly polished mirror, and she only believed in the things she saw reflected there. She never even considered anything else.
That’s what it was.
And yet I liked her even so, and Pooch liked her, and probably everyone else around her liked her too. We all continued to be enchanted by her. (p.61)
Beautiful, fascinating and vindictive, it’s a dangerous combination. Tsugumi seems capable of anything, and before the end of the novel she’ll provide proof of this…
Goodbye Tsugumi contains these two main parts, Maria’s move to the capital and Tsugumi’s internal conflict, and both come together in the final summer they spend together on the coast. This is where the book resembles Yoshimoto’s other works, with the usual focus on the tipping point between everyday life and nostalgia:
Summer was coming. Yes, summer was about to begin.
A season that would come and go only once, and never return again. All of us understood that very well, and yet we would probably just pass our days the way we always had. And this made the ticking of time feel slightly more tense than in the old days, infused it with a hint of distress. We could all feel this as we sat there that evening, together. We could feel it so clearly that it made us sad, and yet at the same time we were extremely happy. (p.56)
Maria realises that even if she now has what she has always wanted, a stable family life, she’s about to lose something she values, but rather than wallowing in self-pity, she’s determined to smile in the face of impending loss and squeeze the last drops of happiness from the summer – very Yoshimoto 😉
What makes Goodbye Tsugumi one of the writer’s better works, though, is what isn’t included. There are none of the gimmicky supernatural, spiritual allusions or conversations that go nowhere; even the dreams which are mentioned here seem relevant (which is certainly not the case elsewhere in her work). What also surprised me in coming back to this book (I had read it several times, all prior to starting the blog) was that the dialogue was not quite as childish and annoying as I had thought. I’ve always steered people away from Goodbye Tsugumi for its childish tone, yet in comparison with Yoshimoto’s other books, it’s actually fairly sombre in parts.
Surprisingly, then, I actually enjoyed my reread of Goodbye Tsugumi much more than I had expected, which simply adds to the mixed impressions I have of Yoshimoto’s work. Perhaps she’s simply a writer who’s difficult to pin down, her work appealing to different people at different times (in different moods…). Still, with no sign of more of her work appearing in English (Bananamania seems to have faded somewhat), this looks like being the last of my Yoshimoto reviews. My end verdict? Still not sure…
After eight full books and a couple of other short stories, that’s an achievement of sorts, I suppose 😉