You could read hundreds of history books and still not really grasp what world events mean to individual lives, to their hopes and dreams and to their personal comedies and tragedies. Hayashi Fumiko does just that in this fine novel, and all while telling a good story in a sparse and stark prose style befitting her subject, a deteriorating and defeated relationship--and nation--struggling and groping tenaciously for life. The giddy high of Japanese colonialism in Southeast Asia with its undertone of violence and impending disaster comes alive in vivid everyday detail, correlating with the blossoming relationship between Yukiko and Tomioka, but the majority of the tale takes place in Tokyo after the defeat, and the sordid reality of survival in a devastated society and the toll this takes on the emotional lives of the couple likewise is rendered in grim and realistic detail. This correlating contrast entwines a universal tale of relationships ripening and then souring with the historically specific tale of what ordinary people in Japan went through in the 1940's in a compelling and effective manner.
That said, the novel isn't perfect. Sometimes the reader's patience with the main characters is sorely strained. Not that one has to like the characters for a novel to be good, of course, but sometimes Tomioka is such a deadbeat and Yukiko so predictably clingy that you start losing interest in what happens to them. And somehow the ending (I will reveal no spoilers) seems rushed and a bit forced, though very moving, definitely. Still, such a narrative could easily have lapsed into utter melodrama in the hands of a lesser writer, but Hayashi always keeps the tone subdued and real, displaying consummate literary talent and craftsmanship. When all's said and done, this is justifiably a classic novel of the mid-twentieth century.
And just a quick note, for anyone interested in the sudden rise of new religions in Japan and public perceptions of them, this novel offers a very intriguing and sarcastic take on the phenomenon.
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