Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake

Death is always so close in a Banana Yoshimoto story that you can almost touch it. The Lake is no exception. But in this novel I felt like Yoshimoto was exploring something slightly different: the ways in which people choose life, despite the certainty of death.

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.


  1. Sounds good! I've got my eye on this book anyway so you confirmed that it's worth reading.

    I've read Goodbye, Tsugumi which I enjoyed (although I didn't like Tsugumi one bit).

    Compliments for a brilliant review, Col!

  2. Oh I haven't heard of this author before but I appreciate expanding the types of books I read and I think I need to try this one! Thanks for turning me onto it.

  3. @Leeswammes -- Definitely worth reading, Judith. I haven't read Goodbye, Tsugumi, although it's on my TBR.

    @Amused -- I never read her until last year, and I couldn't believe it had taken me so long to find her. My favorite book is Kitchen, which is made up of two short novellas. I loved it.

  4. I'd love to read this. It's been a while since I've read some Banana Yoshimoto so it would revisit her again.

  5. I've won this and it is one of the books which I have thought I'd read next week. Thanks for this review.

  6. Col, I only perused your review as I have still not read The Lake myself; I'll come back with meaningful comments when I do. I hope you do find time to read another Yoshimoto, though, because her writing is so tender in my opinion. She is able to pinpoint sadness to perfection. I've loved Kitchen, N.P., and Good-bye Tsugumi. I still have The Lake and Asleep to read, though. Glad you enjoyed this one of hers! xo

  7. still not read any of her works, although I do have kitchen staring at me from my tbr bookshelf.will get there eventually. Enjoyed your post, thanks.
    PS. If you're looking for another book for Jap'Lit 5, try Villain, also reviewed by Bellezza.

  8. @Mrs. B -- I will be interested to see how you like this. I thought she stretched a bit, and I really liked it.

    @Mystica -- I'll be looking for your review!

    @Bellezza -- I have a couple of Yoshimotos on my TBR right now, but you've inspired me to branch out in Japanese lit this year. I will definitely get back to her, though!

    @Parrish -- Villian is on my list for this year, because of your and Bellezza's reviews!

  9. I'm really excited to start reading her work; I've heard so much about it and I would like to dive into the Japanese Reading Challenge as well. Can't wait!


I absolutely love comments. Thanks for taking the time to share! Col