Friday, 9 December 2016

Book Review: The Lake by Yoshimoto Banana
2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

For people who wish to be left alone and to go about their business without friends and family giving advice or commenting unasked for, the big city can be the perfect place to hide. Also for the loner it can be a veritable paradise because like any virgin forest at the back of beyond the metropolis offers solitude and anonymity, but without the need to renounce the amenities of modern existence or the option to socialise at any time. It’s the undisturbed life among strangers and casual acquaintances that both protagonists of The Lake by Yoshimoto Banana appreciate most in Tōkyo. The drifter who paints murals for her living and the graduate student focused on his studies of biotechnology only meet because they live in apartments with windows facing each other. Almost imperceptibly their nodding acquaintance changes into love stronger than the ghosts of the past that so far kept them from getting truly involved with another person.

Yoshimoto Banana (よしもと ばなな, now 吉本 ばなな) was born Yoshimoto Mahoko (吉本 真秀子) in Tōkyo, Japan, in July 1964. She studied literature at Nihon University, Tōkyo, where she adopted the pseudonym “Banana” after the flowers of the plant that she loved. In 1986 she at the same time finished her studies and made her literary debut with the short story Moonlight Shadow (ムーンライト・シャドウ). Only two years later, in 1988, she brought out her first novel – Kitchen (キッチン) – that was an immediate as well as worldwide success. Others of her notable works are the novels Goodbye Tsugumi (つぐみ: 1988), N.P. (N・P エヌピー: 1990), Lizard (とかげ: 1993), Amrita (アムリタ: 1994), Honeymoon (ハネムーン: 1997), Hardboiled & Hard Luck (ハードボイルド/ハードラック: 1999), 体は全部知っている (2000; Daisy’s Life), ハゴロモ (2003; Cloak of Feathers), The Lake (みずうみ: 2005), 彼女について (2008; About Her), Moshi-Moshi (もしもし下北沢: 2010), and スウィート・ヒアアフター (2011; Sweet Hereafter). The author’s latest published work is イヤシノウタ (2016; Iyashinota). Banana Yoshimoto lives in Tōkyo, Japan, with her husband and son.

The narrating protagonist of The Lake is Chihiro, a woman in her early twenties who lives in modern-day Tōkyo and who is too freedom-loving to allow herself to get attached to anyone or anything. In her (unnamed) hometown on the outskirts of Tōkyo she was known to be the illegitimate daughter of the beautiful “Mama-san” of a posh bar and the president of a small import-export family business, so she gladly immersed herself into the anonymity of the big city right after high school.
“When I came to Tokyo and became an ordinary art school student, just like everyone else, I felt so free and light I thought I’d float up into the air.”
Now she makes murals for a living and although she loves the work she cares little about the finished paintings. Quite a while ago, she got to know Nakajima, a graduate student of biotechnology who lives in an apartment diagonally across from hers. At first they only nodded to each other, but every day they got closer and almost unnoticed by themselves they fell in love. Chihiro’s mother has just died after weeks in hospital, when Nakajima stays over at her apartment for the first time. By then Chihiro knows that something very traumatic must have happened in his past although he is unable to talk about it and she doesn’t ask because she isn’t ready to get involved. One day he invites Chihiro to accompany him and visit friends at the lake where he has been living with his late mother. He hopes that her presence will help him to go through with it.
“From my perspective, we were simply taking a nice walk around the edge of a lake, amid lovely scenery, on an invigorating early spring day. But Nakajima didn’t see that. He was in such pain he might as well have been in hell, dragging chains behind him with every step.”
The friends are Mino and his bedridden sister Chii who communicate through telepathy. Moreover, Chii has the power of vision and startles Chihiro by seeing right into her soul. When she visits Mino and Chii on her own some time later, a simple photo on the wall makes her understand which terrible ghosts of the past are haunting Nakajima. And she realises that she has come to love him so much that she is ready to face them with him.

The first-person narrative (almost misleadingly) titled The Lake focuses on the process of opening up to others as well as to love altogether and on breaking the mental chains forged by past experiences. With view on the psychological evolution of the protagonists, I think that it’s justified to call it a coming-of-age novel or a Bildungsroman notwithstanding that the book also offers a portrait of urban life with few hints of social criticism. Its plot is clearly fictitious although the traumatic childhood of Nakajima is loosely inspired by true events and rumours surrounding the Aum Shinrikyo cult of Shoko Asahara that made headlines in Japan and even internationally during the late 1980s and in the 1990s. Otherwise, the mystical lake in the country and the almost otherworldly siblings Mino and Chii, give the story a touch of magical realism that slightly reminded me of Murakami Haruki’s A Wild Sheep Chase (»»» read my review). The tone of the novel is casual as it should be considering that the author made a drifter in her early twenties tell the story from her point of view. As for the language, it’s pleasant to read and easy to follow, but sparse, often deliberately imprecise or even sober at the expense of depth both regarding plot and characters.

By and large, I really enjoyed The Lake by Yoshimoto Banana although I won’t pretend that it was the most enchanting novel that has come my way this year. The read was nice. It was entertaining. It was quick. I don’t regret at all having passed time with this book of the much celebrated Japanese writer, but for me the story lacked the certain something to make it linger on in my mind until long after turning the last page. Maybe it just wasn’t the right one of her books to read at this moment of my life. I definitely was more impressed by her 2008 novel 彼女について that has been published in German as Ihre Nacht already a while ago and that still isn’t available in English translation. Despite all that I just said, The Lake is a good book that deserves my recommendation.

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  1. I like the idea of an artist and a scientist finding each other.

    1. Indeed, Chihiro and Nakajima are an unusual couple - but then they are unusual characters ;-)

  2. I really enjoyed Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto and I've been planning on reading The Lake as well. I'm glad that you enjoyed it :)

    Aeriko @ The Reading Armchair

    1. Yes, I enjoyed The Lake. It was a pleasant read. Strangely, I never could make myself read Kitchen - judging from the blurb it just never seemed the kind of book that I'd like...


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