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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Andrew Miller has created a memorable interpretation of life in Japan as the encroaching climate of World War II changed the lives of his characters forever.

The story is focused on Yuji Tanako, a young man who has been fortunate enough to live on an allowance provided by his father, an eminent professor at the elite Imperial University in Tokyo. However, Yuji's father loses his tenure over mildly critical comments against the Emperor, and as the story opens, Yuji's allowance is scrapped.

Yuji has started to make a living as a writer, having published Electric Dragonfly, a book of poetry (in a nice touch, we see Yuji going round second hand book stalls to seek out his book and place it at the top of the pile). He works occasionally as a hack writer providing commercially-sponsored articles for magazines and newspapers. He also is a member of a literary circle led by a Frenchman, Monsieur Feneon, whose 19 year old daughter, Alissa, exerts her own charms on Yuji at a later stage of the book.

A main theme of the book is the gradual encroachment of the war on Yuji's life. Young men he knows have already been conscripted, and he has only avoided it because of a congenital chest problem which for now has disqualified him (as time progresses, the front-line demands more and more previously exempted men despite their medical problems which are not after all such a great concern).

Yuji has a rich inner life, and it is interesting to see where the author has populated his thoughts with a Japanese flavour, seemingly at odds with some of the European ideals found in the books which Yuji so admires. For example, the Japanese suspicion of the "foreign" has a tragic outcome when Alissa breaks in on Yuji's life: although he is able to achieve some adaptation to the idea of intimacy with a foreign woman, his Japanese sense of abhorrence at such relationships is never far beneath the surface.

The book is written in a sparse, almost Zen-like style. Some chapters are less than a page long and are word-pictures of short episodes. Andrew Miller has lived in Tokyo and describes himself as a "a haphazard Japanophile". Amazon has published some author's comments on the work, and it is evident that Miller went to great pains to get into the skin of the young Japanese poet. The "voice" of the book is convincingly Japanese and this is perhaps partly explained by Miller's willingness to seek advice where needed on all things Japanese.

In summary, the theme of the gradual dissolution of the artisitic life under the increasingly militaristic conditions of the early 1940s is worked out well in this fine and unusual novel. I am encouraged me to seek out this writer's earlier works.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 23 January 2012
For the first hundred pages, I wondered if I was going to persevere with this, which surprised me as I've always found Miller very readable. He writes beautifully here, as always, but the story is very slow to get going and I had serious problems with the viewpoint character: Yuji. He is spoiled, lazy, self-important (he published a volume of poetry that sold 37 copies) and has the infuriating habit of repeating things that people say to him back to them, which makes it astonishing that he doesn't get slapped several times a day.

The novel begins to take off only when he gets involved with Alissa, mixed-race daughter of his French friend, who simultaneously attracts and repels him with her otherness. As the war with China rages on (and the reader knows that a catastrophic war with the US is just round the corner), it seems that Yuji's weak chest will no longer save him from the draft. At this point he stops faffing about and starts behaving like a man and not a spoiled boy. It took a long time, but I finally cared what happened to him.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 25 April 2010
This novel grew on me slowly. At first, I found it hard to remember all the Japanese characters with their Japanese names, and re-reading sections was essential (a practice I don't mind if the end result is worthwhile, and this time it was). It also took me a while to warm to the protagonist, Yuji. However, by the end of the book I had found it a very moving and elegantly-written novel. Yuji grows on the reader just as he grows and matures as a young man trying to find his way.

I don't know much about Japan, but it captured the culture convincingly, at least for me.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 28 May 2009
Because I loved his other books, I was disappointed not to like The Optimists, and when I started reading this novel, I was afraid it, too, might disappoint. However, once I got used to its Japanese pacing, I found myself looking forward each day to reading more. By the last quarter of the book, I was staying up far too late, captured by the story and by the struggles, internal and external, of the young protagonist. This is a masterful effort by a great storyteller with a beautiful grasp of language who is never afraid to try something new. I highly recommend it, along with Oxygen and Ingenious Pain.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 24 August 2009
Ingenious Pain is one of my favourite books, so when I spotted that Andrew Miller had written a book set in Japan, a country I love reading about, I was very excited.

The book is set in Tokyo during WWII and focuses on Yuri, a young man who is unable to fight due to ill-health. He becomes friends with a French trader and his family, but as the war progresses this friendship causes him to have to make some difficult decisions.

As with all books written by Andrew Miller the writing is very good - it is simple, but effective. The book is well researched and explains the lives of the Japanese during the war well. My only criticism would be that it lacks the Japanese atmosphere that I love to read about - I can't picture the sights, sounds and smells of 1940s Japan - this is a minor problem though. The characters are all well developed and believable, and the plot, although not having a fast pace, is engaging.

The lives of Japanese civilians during WWII isn't something I've read about before, so seeing things through their eyes gives a whole new layer to the European war stories we are so used to reading.

I admire Andrew Miller for branching out into a new area and being able to create such a diverse range of books. I will continue to keep an eye out for his new releases and this book will ensure he keeps his place on my list of favourite authors.

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on 1 August 2012
This is a portrait of the low city (of Tokyo) between two devastations, one past and one looming, one natural, and one sought - an earthquake and a bombardment. I didn't know anything about Tokyo in 1940 or Japanese life in general and found it all very interestingly and subtly delineated. And then there is Yuji, forced to leave his Rimbaudesque poetic adolescence behind him by the shadow of war, and find work and love and all the responsibilities, and somehow evade fascism. I feel Andrew Miller puts much of himself into his historical novels, which you have to do to make them live, and also leaves a mystery about what his real intentions are, and therefore they fascinate and captivate. This is quite as good as Pure and Ingenious Pain, which I'd also recommend to anybody interested in the literary novel.
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on 24 August 2012
My first encounter with Andrew Miller. The writing is superb, beautiful and faultless and carried me through a book which I might otherwise have carelessly passed over. (That is not a criticism of the story and themes, but merely a reflection of what instinctively interests me.) The writing gave complete credibility to the characters and their actions; it is irrelevant whether you "like" Yuji or not because he is utterly convincing. The evocation of time and place is also handled with total confidence.
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on 24 May 2014
Very clever beautifully written book about a gentle cosmopolitan Japanese intellectual's life as his country rips China apart and begins to embark on its wider Asian ambitions. Well researched, very touching and very thought producing as well as very original.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 19 November 2010
For those readers who like intricate tapestries in three similar shades of grey, this is the book for you. This novel is heavily weighted on atmosphere over substance and whilst the approaching war is increasingly worrying for the young poet Yuji, the lack of any plot substance for the first three quarters of the book places severe demands on the reader. Yuji, the main character of the novel, is lacking any depth and plods his way through the novel like a reluctant donkey. The novel moves too slowly to outweigh the quality of writing sufficiently for me to recommend this book.
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Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller (Paperback - 19 Feb. 1998)

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