Chihiro, a young muralist, narrates the quirky story of her love affair with a shy, sincere medical student, Nakajima. Both of them are motherless, and somewhat estranged from their fathers. They come into each others’ lives slowly and cautiously, first as a comforting presence in the window across the street, then as acquaintances, then as friends and finally, almost accidentally, as lovers. But there’s something so terrible in Nakajima’s past that he can’t discuss it – something that makes him seem somehow out of step with the rest of the world.
Compared with other Yoshimoto heroines, I found the tone of Chihiro’s first-person narration very direct and accessible. I appreciated Chihiro’s mixed feelings about her family and her lover – nothing comes easy in her world.
Playing at marriage, playing at being a dad, playing at being a full member of society.
Everything in my life revolves around people playing at being something.
But that’s only because we have to be that way in order to get on with our lives. Just because people are playing doesn’t mean their hearts aren’t in it. p. 141
And yet even Chihiro is aware that she is not fully engaged in anything – in her work, in her love affair, in her family – because there is a part of her life that she is not being entirely honest about.
This is a slim book, but it travels a mysterious terrain, making it slower going than you might expect. Dreams provide an alternate form of reality, which is a bit unsettling when juxtaposed with Chihiro’s apparent realism. Readers more familiar with current events in Japan may have guessed more about the mystery of Nakajima’s past than I did,* but I don't think the effect will be any less jarring.
This book lacks the sweetness of the other Yoshimoto books I have read, but I think that’s okay. It has a certain grittiness instead, something I liked almost as much. I think Yoshimoto fans will embrace this book too. But the edgier voice may help find a wider audience for Yoshimoto among those who like a more mysterious – or even gothic – read.
This is my first book for this year’s Japanese Literature Challenge 5, hosted by Dolce Bellezza. I’m trying to expand my readings this year, so this will probably be my only Yoshimoto title. Then again, I enjoy her writing so much, it’s possible I’ll add another if I can squeeze in the time.
*Let me say that I’m glad I heard about this book from Dolce Bellezza’s site, and not by reading the publisher’s description, because it gives A LOT away – avoid it if you want to let the book reveal itself to you in layers.