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.
(trans. by Michael Emmerich)
Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011 (orig. Japanese ed. 2005)
* An American translation. We would say “mum”!