A review by Jason Picone
In a contemporary era where many long novels contain a plethora of information, but offer little in the way of human emotion, Banana Yoshimoto's short fiction provides a warm alternative, a comforting space for readers to relax and get lost in. Her latest offering to appear in English displays the spare, understated prose that has become Yoshimoto's trademark, and her writing is well wedded to this perfect little tale of memory and maturation. Goodbye Tsugumi also contains another Yoshimoto hallmark, that unusual blend of strongly positive and negative emotions, the complex "cheery sadness," that her wise characters possess.
Maria, the novel's first person narrator, was raised in a Japanese seaside village before she moved to Tokyo to attend University. When her younger cousin Tsugumi invites her back to her childhood home to enjoy one last summer together at the beach, Maria cannot resist traveling back to the land of her youth, a journey that leads her to examine her upbringing and her future.
Afflicted with a weak constitution since birth, Tsugumi is a sickly young woman whose family overlooks her poor behavior because they all fear that she could die at any time. An odd mixture of determination, pitiable suffering and incessant tantrums, Tsugumi is far from a maudlin stock character that Yoshimoto uses to gain the reader's sympathy. Instead, she is woman of great depth and strength, whose chronically ill-tempered disposition stems from her intense self-awareness regarding her fragile mortality. Maria's childhood resentment of the spoiled and violent Tsugumi is tempered by their ever-strengthening adult friendship, a relationship that causes Maria to reconsider the psyche of her ailing cousin.
The magic of this book is its ability to depict Maria's budding maturity and her acceptance of Tsugumi, bad points and all. Yoshimoto skillfully captures the nuances of trying to maintain a difficult, yet valued, lifelong relationship:
It didn't matter what [Tsugumi] put us through, or what awful things she said to us just because she happened to be in a crummy mood….Beyond her words and beyond her heart, much deeper than all that, supporting the snarl of who she was, was a light so strong it made you sad.
Maria's realization that Tsugumi is simply a person who is likely to die young and does not want to be forgotten is typical of the poignant conclusions that Maria makes and adds to the considerable emotional depth of this contemplative coming of age tale.
Many of the novel's strongest scenes are set at night, and Yoshimoto excels at portraying the splendor of nocturnal epiphanies, the quiet moments of revelation in the dark that linger in the mind for years to come:
The knowledge that as long as I went on living I would always have chances to feel these nights made it possible for me to have hope for the future....I knew this night would never be back, but it didn't matter. Just having this possibility, just knowing that I might find myself again in a night like this, in some other summer, was enough to make it all perfect.
As young children, Maria and Tsugumi played a game called the haunted mailbox, where they would sneak out to a mailbox in the middle of the night, in the hope of finding letters from spirits within. Yoshimoto's use of light, airy prose to illuminate weighty topics like death and suffering lends her work a haunting quality, worthy of occupying haunted mailboxes everywhere. Goodbye Tsugumi is a book of tender growth and beauty that effortlessly conveys the struggle of trying to hold onto memories even when you know it is impossible, the joy of turning to adult life after a static youth, and the necessity of saying goodbye to old friends and places, without quite letting them go.
(Grove Press and Yoshimoto's translator, Michael Emmerich, are to be commended for bringing Goodbye Tsugumi to English speaking audiences, as it was originally published in Japan in 1989. Earlier this year, Grove Press published an older novel by another great Japanese writer, Kenzaburo Oe's Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!, a first-rate novel that readers are fortunate to have in English.)