Let’s leave the eighties behind now and move on to 1999, with another short novel by an excellent writer. Kaori Ekuni hasn’t really had much of her work appear in English as yet (just two full novels from different small presses), but on the basis of today’s choice, she deserves much better. We’re off on a journey, moving from town to town, not looking for anything but hoping to be found. It’s a worthwhile trip for the reader – I’m not quite as sure that it’s good for the protagonists, though…
God’s Boat (translated by Chikako Kobayashi) is a story told by two women, Yoko and her daughter Soko, with alternating takes on their lives. We begin in 1997, in the small coastal town of Takahagi, where the nine-year-old Soko is busy settling into yet another elementary school, a familiar experience for a girl used to moving around:
In the box is an expression Mum and I use when we’re talking about something that’s in the past. The good times never come back once they’re in the past.
“But it’s nothing to be sad about,” Mum had said. She was wearing a colourful floral skirt. “Because what has happened will never change. It will always be. The things in the past are the only things that really belong to us.”
That was what she said four years ago when I cried and complained about having to move. It was the first town in which I’d managed to make friends.
p.7 (Thames River Press, 2012)
Soko, as you might imagine, doesn’t quite share this belief, but she has no choice but to tag along each time her mother decides to up sticks and head for pastures new. While for her each day is new and full of discoveries, her mother prefers to live in the past.
However, there’s a reason for this unusual lifestyle, and it all has to do with Soko’s absent father. Having been forced to leave Yoko and their infant daughter, he promised to return one day, and until that time, Yoko is determined to keep moving, unwilling to settle down in a place where her man can’t be with her. As time passes, though, Soko becomes older and more independent, and as much as she loves her mother, there’s only so long that she can put her life on hold for the memory of a man she doesn’t really know…
God’s Boat is a beautiful novel, and excellently paced. It’s the touching story of two women who rely on each other and the changing nature of their relationship with the passing of time. The book is a pleasure to read, and Kobayashi has done sterling work in bringing the different (and developing) voices into English, as well as catching the poignant mood pervading Ekuni’s work.
While short, the novel progresses leisurely, divided into a number of chapters describing the life the two women have in various towns. The key to the story lies in the relationships Yoko had before leaving Tokyo on her never-ending travels. Near the start of the novel, we are told of her marriage to a man called the Professor and her relationship with Soko’s father, details of which slowly emerge as the story progresses. However, there are still many gaps in the puzzle, and it takes a while before we understand what Yoko is doing and why.
On the surface, mother and daughter lead a happy life. Yoko supports her little family by offering piano lessons to locals, and through her work at various bars and cafés; in the background, Soko goes off to school, growing up independent but content. The early chapters are especially marked by scenes of domestic happiness as the pair play the piano together, take walks along the beach and cuddle up at night along with Soko’s toys.
Perhaps the major strength of God’s Boat (the title comes from the vessel Yoko believes is carrying them along their path), though, is the difference in voices, and in particular the way they develop over time. At the start, we have the calm, adult Yoko and the childish, if mature, Soko, and the language used reflects this. However, as the years go by, Soko gets older and wiser, and she starts to doubt her mother more:
I open the window and lean out into the garden.
“The stars are beautiful. Look, there are so many of them.”
Without even a perfunctory glance, Soko says that she’s too cold. I regret not knowing anything about stars. I wish I could teach Soko the constellations – that’s Orion, that’s the North Star – the way my mother used to teach me. The way he would teach her, if only he were here.
“Come on, I’m cold”, Soko says, and quickly closes the window.
“You’re not much of a romantic,” I say.
Widening her eyes on purpose, as if in exasperation, Soko says, “You’re too much of a romantic, Mum.” (p.67)
Again, Ekuni and Kobayashi manage this development of Soko’s voice perfectly, while at the same time bringing a growing sense of gloom and desperation into that of her mother.
I loved God’s Boat, but I feel there’s a need to play devil’s advocate a little. The longer the book goes on, the more exasperating Yoko becomes. Her sole reason for living is the dream of seeing Soko’s father again, and the way she idealises his charm and beauty verges on deification. These memories and sensations can only make real life seem a pale imitation of her past, yet the more we are told of this rosy history, the harder it is to ignore the facts of what happened. Put bluntly, a deadbeat loser with debts left her saddled with a kid. I’m not sure the great sex makes up for all of that…
For me, Yoko gradually becomes deluded, clueless and selfish. Poor Soko is forced to tiptoe around her mother, who, unable to look back (except when it comes to daydreaming about her man), puts all past experiences ‘in the box’:
“But…” Soko looked at me imploringly as she raised her head. “If we’re going to the beach we might as well go to Takahagi, don’t you think? You liked the ocean there,” she added.
I had no intention of going to Takahagi. Looking back or developing strong bonds will only tie me down. “Why not Izu? There are hot springs there.”
Shoko frowned. “Boso is fine.” (p.52)
It’s testament to Soko’s mental strength that she comes through all this fairly unscathed and is eventually able to stand up to Yoko. Part of the fascination of reading God’s Boat is deciding how intentional all of this is and how far Ekuni wants us to sympathise with Yoko. Is the writer on her side? I’m certainly not.
For all my issues with the hapless mother, God’s Boat is an excellent book, well written and touching, one I’m sure most readers would enjoy. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t seem to have done that well, with very few reviews out there. This may be down to the relatively unknown publisher (or the cover – I’m not a fan), but it’s a shame all the same. If you’re looking for more of Ekuni’s work in English, there’s the novel Twinkle Twinkle (translated by Emi Shimokawa, published by Vertical Press), or you could try the short story ‘Picnic‘ (tr. Lydia Moëd) in Comma Press’ excellent The Book of Tokyo collection. That’s not much to try, though – let’s hope there’s more on its way before too long.