Banana Yoshimoto, The lake (Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011)

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

When I saw that Banana Yoshimoto‘s novel The lake was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize I knew that it would be a high priority for me to read, because I like Japanese literature and I have read and enjoyed Yoshimoto (her novel Kitchen) before.

The first thing that struck me, however, as I started reading the book was a case of reading synchronicity. Roy’s The folded earth, the first book I reviewed for our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 project, is about a young woman grieving the death of her husband. In The lake, the protagonist, Chihiro, also a young woman, has just lost her mother. And, in further synchronicity, both women meet men who impact their lives. This is not unusual, of course, but the thing is that in both books there is a sense of mystery surrounding these men. However, this is where the similarity ends: the mystery in The lake has nothing to do with the death of Chihiro’s mother. Rather, it relates to something the man has experienced, something that has clearly damaged him.

So, what is the plot? It is basically a romance. The first line of the novel is:

The first time Nakajima stayed over, I dreamed of my dead mom*.

Chihiro, our first person narrator, then flashes back to tell us about her background, her somewhat unusual life with her bar-owner mother and businessman father who never married due to his family’s objections. Chihiro is around 30, but this is, really, a coming-of-age novel because she doesn’t yet feel grown-up:

I’m still a child. I still need my parents, and yet, I suddenly feel I’m walking alone.

Into this solo life comes a young medical student, a “puzzling young man”, Nakajima, who lives in the apartment opposite hers. They first communicate non-verbally across the dividing space. Gradually Chihiro feels she is falling in love with Nakajima, but she is not sure, partly because he’s odd, uneasy, something he admits to but can’t (yet) explain. However, it is through learning to accept Nakajima, to not push him but simply to care for him, that Chihiro starts to grow up. At first she wants to have fun – “I didn’t want to deal with weighty matters” – but she comes to realise that she needs him, and senses that he is “the one”. All this develops before we know what happened to Nakajima. Plotting the story through Chihiro’s description of their developing relationship puts the focus less on what happened in the past – though we certainly want to know – and more on how two young “kind of weird” people might move together to a good future.

Now, here’s the rub. Do I let on what happened to Nakajima? The blurb inside the jacket hints at what it is, so perhaps it’s ok to. However, I think I won’t. All I’ll say is that the lake – to which Nakajima takes Chirihiro half way through the novel – and the brother and sister (Mino and Chii) living there are important to the resolution. Chii is bedridden and mute but she can foretell the future and she does this through Mino. This adds a supernatural element to the story, which works well enough for me though I’m not sure what it specifically adds to the novel (except perhaps a sense of “otherness” to the atmosphere?)

The more important question to ask is why has this novel been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize? Is it more than a nicely written coming-of-age love story? Well, the mystery and its impact on Nakajima, Mino and Chii is a significant one, but that, from the way the story is told and how the plot is resolved, doesn’t seem to be the main point. It is clearly about grief, trauma and recovery, but I think this might be overlaid with the struggle in Japanese society, particularly for the current young generation, to not follow the norm blindly. Nakajima and Chihiro did not have “normal” upbringings. This means that, whether they like it or not, they symbolise nonconformity – and must, consequently, make active decisions about where to next. Freedom is not, I understand, a high value in Japanese society … but it is an issue that comes up regularly in the book. Chihiro’s parents aren’t, through family expectations, free to marry. The mystery surrounding Nakajima relates to a loss of freedom. In her work as a muralist, Chihiro’s only demand is the freedom to paint what she wants and, when that is threatened by a sponsor wanting her to incorporate an enormous logo into her mural, she intelligently but resolutely conducts a campaign to encourage him to change his mind.

Late in the novel, when talking about his experience, Nakajima says:

When you’re in a state of homogeneity, you’ve lost yourself.

Beyond loss and childhood trauma, then, it is the ongoing things like homogeneity, lack of freedom, the push to be normal that challenge Yoshimoto’s characters. But this is a quiet, lyrical book rather than a feisty one. It recognises that life involves “dull repetition of the same old thing” peppered by those “little leaps of your heart to put a splash of colour in the world”. Have I fully understood this novel? I’m not sure that I have … but I did enjoy reading it and thinking about the issues Yoshimoto seems to be exploring.

Matt of A Novel Approach and Lisa of ANZLitLovers, on our Man Asian team, have also reviewed it and are worth reading for their different takes.

Banana Yoshimoto
The lake
(trans. by Michael Emmerich)
Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011 (orig. Japanese ed. 2005)
ISBN: 9781933633770

* An American translation. We would say “mum”!

26 thoughts on “Banana Yoshimoto, The lake (Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011)

  1. I’ve not yet managed to read Yoshimoto. I have Kitchen on a shelf somewhere. The homogeneity theme seems quite interesting. That is something I have never understood about Japanese society coming from a give-me-my-freedom-I’ve-gotta-be-me America as I do. It always kind of feels creepy. Not that there is no pressure to conform in the U.S., there is, but there are always ways around it.

    • Oh give her a go sometime Stefanie – perhaps in that other reading universe we all wish we had! No, the homogeneity is something that I find intriguing and a little mystifying too. Like all “characteristics” it has its pluses and minuses, the pluses being a greater focus on the needs of the group and less on “me” but “me” does need some air too doesn’t it? (As Nakajima says!)

  2. The novel did not work for me. I recognize the attempt at irony, with a narrator who is not as sophisticated as she thinks she is. For the irony to work, the reader needs to share a set of assumptions with the author, and that foundation was missing, I thought. Your comments about Japanese society are helpful in this regard. Perhaps the novel speaks more meaningfully to readers immersed in the culture. But then you enjoyed it, so maybe cultural expectations do not explain my disappointment.

    • Oh Fay … have I missed your review? I can’t see it on your blog but if you have let me know and I’ll add a link to it.

      That’s an interesting point you make about irony. I must say I didn’t really read it as such – so either it’s a failed attempt as you suggest or it’s not intended to be ironic. What did you see as the attempted irony?

      As for Japanese society … I do have some, albeit minimal understanding, as my son lived there for three years and we have travelled there three times. But, I am by no means an expert and my understanding is very superficial. However, I did think the various references to freedom, homogeneity, being normal vs odd or weird (and therefore a little out of step with others), were clues to something going on about society?

  3. Sue, I decided not to review it. A riff on banality did not seem to serve any purpose. By irony I mean the dry humor at the expense of the narrator. It just did not speak to me. You liked the book well enough, and I do not mean to spoil your enjoyment. Still, it will not break my heart if the judges leave it off the shortlist for the Man Asian Prize.

    • Thanks for explaining. Whilst I wasn’t bowled over I did find it had things to interest. I haven’t read enough of the Man Asian books yet but this doesn’t feel like a shortlist one. Still, it feels like we’ve read different books – I didn’t see any humour!

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  7. Sometimes a quiet, lyrical book is precisely what you want, and I think that the Christmas period is just such a time! I read Kitchen, I believe, and quite enjoyed it.

  8. This one is next on my list. I must admit I was kind of dreading it, but your review (and the subsequent comments) have made me think it might be something I can get into after all.

  9. whisperinggums,

    I’m afraid I agree with Fay on this one. This is my first taste of Banana Yoshimoto, and I’m afraid it just might be my last. I could not engage at all… sorry to offer a negative viewpoint. Not until I read your review, I’ve almost totally forgotten what the story is about. I’m reading Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain now, and I can really feel the contrast. But of course, it’s just a highly subjective feeling that I had while reading Yoshimoto.

    Anyway, I meant to stop by and wish you a Happy New Year, WG. All the best in the coming year and may you enjoy loads of good reads!

    • Thanks Arti … and back atcha! I in fact have your round-up post open now ready to comment, but keep being distracted.

      I must say I’m intrigued by the level of dislike for The lake. It’s not a standout for me but I thought it had some real things going for it. I’ve read The sound of the mountain – and liked it. Would like to read more of his but I have a few other Japanese novels in my tbr pile by new authors to me, so I’ll be trying to get to them first. I’m just hoping I can get to read more next year. This year has been pretty woeful.

      • WG,

        I meant to ask you … have you read Geraldine Brooks’s new novel, Caleb’s Crossing? I can’t say I’m in tuned with GB on her previous work People of the Book. It’s a title that I thought I’d love but for some reasons, I failed to engage. Don’t know why. That was a few years back. Maybe I’ll have different response now. However, since she has her new book out … I just wonder if I’d like it.

        • Hi Arti, yes I did read it … You can check for my review in the Index: Authors page. I had mixed feelings about it, and about The people of the book. I liked her previous books – fiction and nonfiction – better than these last two ones. I think it’s something to do with the voice. That was particularly the case for me with the contemporary narrator in The people of the book. Good research and good stories overall but the voice/perspective has to be right. Anyhow, check my review if you’re interested.

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  11. The homogeneity theme was interesting. I am quite sure that Yoshimoto must have used the words “tatemae (façade or public front) versus “honne” to describe the need conform to society versus the need to express oneself freely. These words are commonly used in Japan to describe the pull to conform to society’s standards, yet the desire to maintain a personal honesty. Chihiro, though she strove to remain true to her “honne” recognized that even she was pulled to conform, such as in when she didn’t fully express her grief in front of the neighbors at her mother’s funeral. Though Chihiro faulted her father for conforming to the stupid restrictions set by his relatives, she still admired his frank expression (honne) of grief at her mother’s funeral. I certainly don’t think that the ideas of “tatemae” and “honne” are limited to Japan—it is just that the Japanese recognize and talk about these ideas frequently. In the United States, “tatemae” could be called “political correctness”. People may think a certain way, but they certainly would never express these thoughts publicly out of a desire to “get along” with the rest of society.

    • Wow, thanks Carolyn. That’s a great help and explains some of my uncertainty about making sense of what I was reading. You liked the book? You’ve probably told me and I’ve forgotten.

      This is one of the reasons I am uncomfortable about reading translated literature … no matter how good the translator is, there are concepts that are not always easy to convey and keep a literary work literary. If that makes sense.

  12. I’ve just finished this (a one-day affair on the 1st of the 1st!), and I have to say that I actually liked it more than I expected. This is a slightly more sensible and serious effort from Yoshimoto, and it was largely without the trite, American-teen-style dialogue which can mar her work at times. Not sure it’s worthy of winning a prize like this, but I’ll definitely be reading it again at some point.

    Very glad Lisa passed her copy on to me 🙂

    • Oh good, thanks Tony for joining in. I feel the same ie that it may not have the heft to win the prize but I found it pretty engaging. I’m glad Matt and I aren’t the only ones!

  13. Have both this & Kitchen awaiting my glance on the shelf & aim to read them this year & with you stating it’s a Romance helps me with one of my challenges, so Thanks.

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