Lake, The Hardcover – 7 Jul 2011
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Some people have called this an off-beat love story, but I don't think that's what it is in the slightest. They come together at first because they can't stand to be alone anymore. Nakajima finds it difficult to be around other people but with Chihiro he feels comfortable. Chihiro on the other hand is in the stage of grief where physical intimacy is not something she particularly wants or needs and she is drawn to Nakajima's relaxed, fluid approach to life. They're together because without the other, each one of them would fall apart. Love does begin to blossom between them but it's their own distinct and rather charming kind of love.
There were times when I found Chihiro to be self-absorbed and on reflection, those instances were where she just needed to grow up a little bit and be a little more aware of those around her. Her growth as a character is great because by the end of the novel, she's becoming a young woman you could have an interesting conversation with, not a self centered snob as she sometimes appears. Nakajima on the other hand is very interesting from his entrance in the story. He's just one of those characters who has reach a place in his life where he could go one of two ways; collapsing in on himself and becoming completely socially withdrawn or grasping the nettle and taking steps towards really living opposed to just existing.
The star of this book is Yoshimoto's writing, hands down. I kept reading sections out-loud to my friends and family, I even phoned my best friend to read something I knew she would appreciate. All of her books are beautifully written and the publisher has found a very gifted translator in Michael Emmerich.
Yoshimoto's precise prose creates a very intimate protrait of Japan, one that lays contrary to the image a lot of people hold. The translation is beautiful and I hope, as I always do, that it has stayed as close to the original work as possible. I got this from Net Galley and so I couldn't read the back of the book, which apparently includes spoilers. I had the luxury of reading this gently paced book and reaching its conclusion without it being a suspicion confirmed. I've deliberately avoided spoilery aspects of the discussion which I am BURSTING to have with someone else who has read this book, I might have to go seek someone out on GoodReads.
This is a quick read, the copy I had access to was 188 pages, although it is listed as being slightly longer on some websites. It is a sad read however, it deals with some of the weightier issues in life and it may not reach a conclusion that is useful to you if you are looking to literature to heal you, as many people do. I would recommend it to people who are looking for an interesting, quirky look at grief and how people interact with each other, but not to someone who is currently in an acute state of grief.
This book tells the story of an, in a way, unconventional love affair. Two lonely young people exchange glances and waves from a distance and just wonder what meeting each other would be like. Chichiro, is desperately trying to get over the death of her mother, which casts a heavy shadow over her whole being, while Nakajima seems to be struggling hard just to go on living. Everyday life may seem like a burden to them, but what they lack in joy they have in talent and in brains. The woman is a very talented and inspired mural painter, while the man is highly intelligent and hopes one day to make a name in the field of nanotechnology. Sooner or later they are going to meet, and little by little everything will start to change for them, as the one will come to find in the face of the other, in an almost whispered way, the perfect companion. Through their deeds and their many discussions we'll come to discover some hidden aspects of their inner lives, and also have the chance to take a good look at the modern day Japanese society; a society where time is money and everything can be sold and bought, a society of plenty; just before the economic crash brought things upside down, that is.
Being together though doesn't mean that their problems are magically solved. As Nakajima is trying to move forward with his plans, while at the same time harboring thoughts of death, Chichiro is still working with her psychological issues. Time and again she thinks about her dead mother and her estranged father; "I guess my mom was all he had - the one flower that smelled like freedom", she says, to add later on, addressing directly her mother: "...you were like a blossom softly unfurling its petals on a cliff somewhere".
The two young people, even though they now have someone to lean on, continue nevertheless to feel kind of lonely; subconsciously they are still kept grounded by the chains of yesteryear. They both know that they have to do all they can to escape their demons; but what? He actually knows what he has to do, but he needs her help to do it; a help that she's more than happy to provide. So they set out on a trip to the country, to visit a house, or rather a hut by a lake, where two young people, a brother and a sister reside. Being there with him, meeting these strange people, Mino and Chii, feels like a surreal experience to her, as for the first time, she comes to learn something very important about Nakajima's past. He, on the other hand, having finally done what he always wanted and needed to do, now feels free to go on living, as if all his burdens have been lifted. From that day onwards their common life will change for the better; a kind of serenity will settle in between them and they'll start to confide to each other everything, discuss matters more openly, share their big musts and must not's, and at last start loving each other for who they really are. "This is what it means to be loved... when someone wants to touch you, to be tender..." Chichiro says, even though she doesn't hesitate to admit that at the time, "what I felt for him wasn't exactly love, it was closer to a sense of surprise, even shock". Of course that was only because he had "the intensity of a person unafraid of death, at the end of his rope".
This finely crafted tale talks in a straightforward way about a person's need for love and companionship; but also about loneliness, which can be turned into a noose and choke the will to live out of everybody. This book can be read, and excuse me for the metaphor, like a ballad; a ballad about the complexity and simplicity of the everyday life, and of the young souls. I dare say that this is one of the best novels, by one of the best writers that ever came out of Japan.
I was glad when I finished the book and went online to do this review that I hadn't re-read the blurb as it gives away one of the key points of the plot and would have been a real spoiler if my memory was better. Chihiro moves from the small town she was brought up in to Tokyo after the death of her mother. Her parents were unmarried and did not have a conventional relationship, she the mama-san of a club, he a prominent businessman, Chihiro pigeonholed by others on the basis of her parentage. Tokyo is to be a fresh start and an escape. The book tells the story of her growing relationship with the man she sees looking out of her window, whose past holds a dark secret.
The prose is simple and beautiful, the story of the young couple and his friends is sweet and sad, and it was refreshing to read a story where the relationship develops slowly and cautiously, isn't based on looks and passion and where are a different, more comfortable partnership is the key to happiness. They are no poster couple for the romantic ideal. The characters are all quirky and complicated.
I'm not sure whether this was a long novella or a short novel but it took me less than 3 hours to read. It certainly didn't seem like a full length novel. I can't put my finger on why but something about this book had me entranced and I'll be looking up other works by the same author.
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