Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto

Despite her massive popularity in the West, I hadn't read Japanese novelist Banana Yoshimoto's books before. I didn't really have anything against them, but they looked too pop and light to really be my thing. I felt pretty sure they were meant for a younger demographic than mine. At the same time, I knew that as I started The Lake as my choice for the Japanese Literature Challenge, I really didn't know what to expect, or even if The Lake was representative of her work as a whole. As to the last, I still don't.

The Lake is very beautiful, a quiet revery of a book. I worry a bit that it might seem simplistic to some, but I thought it had a lot to say. The narrator of the story, Chihiro starts off the story with the fact that the first night her neighbor Nakajima stays over with her, she dreams about her dead mother. As her mother has died not so many months before and the Nakajima character is someone new in her life, I think we can say that this is a threshold moment, the point where new life is growing out of the ashes of the old.

If you read any of the blurbing on the book you will know rather more quickly than I did what Nakajima's story is, but I think I'll give you the option of letting that unfold as it did for me--slowly and over the course of the book. It doesn't give much away to say that Chihiro has only recently moved to Tokyo to try and begin her professional life--or some kind of life, anyway. As a graphic artist, she has accidentally fallen into a role as a muralist who is even beginning to be well known. Nakajima  is a neighbor who lives across the way in another multi-leveled apartment building. they observe each other from this distance and very gradually become acquainted.

One thing that impressed me in this novel was the way that distance itself worked to foster a relationship between these two people. Chihiro is still grieving her mother's loss, and Nakajima is profoundly damaged. Neither would have been able to meet the other in a bar or any other shallow, superficial place. They meet, they don't force each other into any particular role--they grow closer in a more organic, unhurried way.

Despite her grief, despite being a somewhat adrift artist, despite having a mother who was ran a club and wasn't married to her father, Chihiro is a normal person. To be in relation to Nakajima she has to acknowledge that she is out of her depth--that she can't and never will be able to empathize her way into his story, because some stories are outside our normal human ken. Chihiro realizes that the call of death is strong in him, and that at some point it may become too strong and he may give in to it.

However much I loved him, and as beautiful as the world was, none of it was powerful enough to take the weight off his heart, that heaviness that dragged him down, into the beyond, making him yearn for peace. My body sensed it. And my soul.   

It would be easy, in this circumstance, to make Chihiro, the female character, too self-sacrificial. But instead, she goes on with her life, taking up a new mural project and lets life unfold. It's not so much that she does anything in particular for Nakajima, as that she tries to understand what love in this circumstance could be. She opens herself up to the experience.

There are some friends at the lake of the title who Nakajima will eventually take her to meet. There's a slightly otherworldly and even ghostly aspect to this pair and I am wondering a bit if other readers will be put off by their somewhat supernatural abilities. For me, though, it felt like yet another new aspect of reality that Chihiro had to accept and surrender to, and that her reaction mirrors the reader's own.

I thought the portrait of mother loss was particularly sensitively done. Yoshimoto renders the subtle psychological state that new grief can be. When for example, she is offered an unexpected opportunity to take up a new life, she registers her mother's absence anew.

I wanted my mom to be alive, tying me down. To be showing her disapproval, telling me, I don't know, going abroad?--it's so far and we won't be able to see each other. I yearned to hear those words, to hear her saying them. But I never would again.     

I know that others who are taking up the Japanese Literature Challenge are planning to read this book, and I'm very interesting to hear what they have to say about it, especially as it relates to the larger context of her work.


  1. Of the many lines in your post I loved, this one struck me first: "The Lake is very beautiful, a quiet revery of a book. I worry a bit that it might seem simplistic to some, but I thought it had a lot to say." I find that so true of Japanese literature. It seems deceptively simple, until you find yourself mulling it over days after you've finished, and sometimes even years later.

    This sounds like Yoshimoto's other work in many ways to me, in that it explorers relationships, and I also had a sense from your post that it's a quiet, rather lovely read as well. Not to forget sad. I find Yoshimoto's books to have such a layer of sorrow in them.

    I need to read this myself, having had it on my shelf for months as well as being the hostess for the challenge! Thank you for your insightful, beautifully written review.

  2. haven't read this yet, but have Kitchen on the shelf in front of me.

  3. Hmm--I thought I had responded to your kind comment, Bellezza, but apparently it got eaten.Anyway, thanks for dropping by and especially for putting this book in a broader context for me.

    parrish lantern--I'll look forward to seeing your thoughts on Kitchen if you get to it for the challenge.