‘Spring Garden’ by Tomoka Shibasaki (Review)

img_5590After enjoying Hiromi Kawakami’s Record of a Night Too Brief, I was keen to try more of the new Pushkin Press mini-series of contemporary Japanese literature, and luckily the second book is out now too.  This time it’s a short novel, rather than a collection of stories, but like Kawakami’s work, it took out the prestigious Akutagawa Prize back in its home country.  Another potential success, then?  Let’s find out…

Tomoka Shibasaki’s Spring Garden (translated by Polly Barton, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is set in modern-day Tokyo, and revolves around the friendship between Taro, a divorced worker in his mid-thirties, and Nishi, a slightly older woman who draws Manga cartoons online.  They both live in an ageing apartment building near the centre of the city, but it isn’t until Taro sees Nishi hanging around outside one of the few remaining houses in the neighbourhood that they actually strike up an acquaintance, gradually becoming good friends.

Nishi lets Taro into the secret of why she’s hanging around the unusual sky-blue house round the corner, showing him the photo book Spring Garden that she carries around with her.  She’s been obsessed with the book, and the house, for years, so when a new family moves in there, she uses the opportunity to strike up a relationship with the young mother, hoping to get inside one day.  Carried along by her enthusiasm, Taro also becomes interested in the house, particularly when he notices something odd in one of the photos.  Perhaps the house has its own secrets to tell…

Spring Garden may be a contemporary tale, but it certainly conforms to the Japanese literature tradition of favouring mood over plot, with little really happening over the course of the novel.  It’s a book exploring the growing social relationships between a small group of people in a surprisingly quiet part of the urban jungle, looking at lives spent just outside the mainstream.  There’s nothing thrilling here, just a few conversations, some chance encounters and a look at a city in constant flux, but there’s a certain charm to the way Shibasaki moves her characters around.

Paradoxically, though, it’s very much a book about change.  The apartment building where the main characters live is on borrowed time, with the son of the owner (whose mother is no longer capable of running her own affairs) wanting to have the place knocked down for redevelopment.  Because of this, the place is slowly dying, with tenant after tenant disappearing without a word overnight, the building becoming ever quieter with each departure.  The surrounding area is also changing, and every time Taro walks to the station, he sees signs of the area’s modernisation, scaffolding everywhere reminding him of the inevitability of progress.

The overwhelming feeling running through the book is one of loneliness.  Both Nishi and Taro are loners, living away from their families (the early death of Taro’s father is frequently mentioned), and one of the other main characters (whom Taro dubs Mrs. Snake, after the name of the flat she lives in) is an old lady with nobody to talk to except her neighbours.  Taro has been living this life for a while, but it suddenly hits home one day at work when talking to a colleague about Hokkaido:

Taro was about to say that he wouldn’t feel the cold when he was dead, but it suddenly struck him that Numazu wasn’t actually wanting a conversation.  He was just voicing the thoughts passing through his mind, and not looking for an answer.  There were two other people in the office at that point, and they were without a doubt listening to what was being said, but neither of them uttered a word.
p.17 (Pushkin Press, 2017)

These are superficial relationships, merely a useful way to pass time, and it’s easy to see that once they’ve served their use, they’ll be forgotten instantly.

Time passing is an idea the writer is keen to remind us of, and while Taro’s life seems to be in stasis, all around him things are rather different.  His suburb is constantly evolving, even if it takes him a while to realise it, with buildings going up and coming down, and empty houses lurking between the new high-rises.  The point hits home when he walks past another of Shinjuku station’s constant renovation projects and it hits him that it will never actually end – constant renewal being necessary for progress.  He then muses on the wider idea of evolution:

The only option available was to go on doing the same things endlessly, wondering why everything had to be such a pain, about how good it would be if you could eat leaves or fruit from some other kind of tree instead of the one you’d landed on.  Once you could no longer go on repeating those actions, then you and your species, at least in its current form, would disappear. (p.112)

Some cheery thoughts for the morning commute – modern life, well it’s rubbish…

Spring Garden was an enjoyable read, yet it never really impressed me.  There’s nothing terrible about it, but it certainly lacked a spark.  When you’re half-way through a short novel, and you’re not really sure where it’s going (and you’re finding it hard to care), it’s never a good sign, and Shibasaki is guilty at times of being overly descriptive.  A long section describing Nishi’s backstory takes up twenty of the hundred-and-fifty pages, a prime example of info dumping.  It’s certainly not Barton’s fault that it’s a bit flat at times; there’s definitely a good story in there, and I suspect some restructuring would have made this work much better.

Sadly, this wasn’t as impressive as most of the Akutagawa winners I’ve read, but many people will enjoy the soothing nature of the story, and while the plot isn’t overly complex, the story of the blue house is interesting.  However, for me, Spring Garden always seems as if it’s about to get going, but never quite manages to get out of first gear.  In many ways, it’s perhaps symptomatic of modern life – and we all know what that’s like…


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