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By Banana Yoshimoto
Reviewed by Oriana Leckert
DO NOT READ THE BACK COVER OF THIS BOOK.
I didn't, luckily, so I was able to experience it as written, as a slow build, a soft, sad, slight mystery, with all the hidden things left hidden, or at least obscured, until they were meant to be revealed. I can't believe Melville House wasn't smart enough to realize that you can't give away the big twist in huge blue letters right there at the top of the blurb. What a massive disservice to Banana.
Ah, Banana. I've loved her for a long time, in a way that acts like a grounding foundation, so even when her books fall short for me, I am confident in her greatness, and I forgive. I've always been strongly drawn to her. I find her very accessible, very human, in a way that someone like, say, Murakami is decidedly not. He and Banana work with many of the same themes--like aching loneliness, and the This Side / The Other Side dichotomy, with things and people slipping softly between the two, and music and its power, and time and its betrayals, and the loss of self through occultish means, and fog and darkness and loss and despair. But with Murakami everything is so crisp and smooth and careful, it's on a higher plane, an untouchable one. Banana is more halting, less sure of herself; she lurches a little in her phrasing, makes slight plot missteps, falters and contradicts with her characters.
That may sound like I'm describing an amateur, but that's not what I mean. Even though she's not quite as polished--which could easily be because she doesn't command as good a translator, or as experienced an editor--her books have an incredibly strong feel to them that overcomes all these quibbles. They're all suffused with such melancholy, such aching sadness. They're so soft, so plangent, that it carries me above the mild awkwardnesses and inconsistencies, it makes me forget about critical reading, and just sucks me down into the experience of the read.
So I guess I should talk about this book, right? It's not so heavy on plot, and I've already told you about the back-cover spoiler, so I don't want to delve too deeply. It's a character-driven book, mostly about Chihiro, her parents (one of whom is dead), and Nakajima, the man she's falling for. Chihiro and Nakajima are both a little strange--the back cover says "quirky," which I think is overstating and twee-ing it--but it's nice to watch them together. He's in pre-med, and she's a painter. They both have complicated, unresolved issues with their parents and with their pasts. They cook together, she gets commissioned to paint a mural on the side of a school, he tries to decide whether to go to med school in Paris. There is a lot of conversation, and a lot of them being quiet together. Things get weirder, but I'm not telling you how.
So. It's a quiet book that hazes into somewhat chilling territory eventually. It's intensely sorrowful sometimes, and light and sweet at others. It's short, and even if it weren't, Banana's terse, mostly unfrilled style would fly you through it. There are some missteps, some inconsistencies, some lurchings, some awkwardness, but it's definitely worth reading, especially if you're already a Banana devotee. Although if you've never read her before, I might start with Asleep, or Goodbye Tsugumi.
Out of 10: 7