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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, August 21st, 2005


Hardboiled and Hard Luck


Seriously spooky

A review by Claudia Pugh-Thomas

Banana Yoshimoto made her name with her first novel, Kitchen, published more than twenty years ago. Her subsequent novels have tended to be slim studies of domestic tragedy, narrated in a prose style that is spare, verging on the poetic; paragraphs are often little more than a sentence. She conjures images that are evocative and direct, while tending to avoid specific details of time and place. Like Haruki Murakami, to whom she is often compared, she allows supernatural forces to influence the lives of her characters.

In these two short novellas, characters who are absent through death or illness are central to the plot and identified by name, while others, the bereaved, remain anonymous and peri- pheral, recording events as they unfold, filtering the action. The effect is to accentuate the degrees of separation between characters, which also extends to the reader. The resulting sense of detachment is compounded by the necessity, for those who are not fluent in Japanese, of reading a translated version of her work, here provided by Michael Emmerich, the translator of, among others, Yoshimoto's fine novel Goodbye Tsugumi (2002).

In Hardboiled, the female narrator walks a mountain road, "surrounded by the sounds and sensations of a quiet evening". She is alone, without a map or fixed destination, adrift in a generic landscape. It is the anniversary of the death of a former lover, a woman with whom she shared the gift of second sight. The last time she saw Chizuru was in a mountain landscape where the two parted company.

When the narrator comes across a shrine in the mountains, she senses a great evil concentrated in a circle of black stones. Later, as she is eating an evening meal of noodles, one of the stones rolls out of her bag. Still later, at the hotel where she passes a disturbed night, she learns that shortly after she left the noodle shop it burned to the ground. The night is resonant with echoes of the past, alive with "sneaky creatures" tugging at the subconscious. The fire in the noodle shop recalls the one in which Chizuru died. A ghost -- one half of a couple whose suicide pact failed -- appears in the hotel room. Both narrator and ghost are, in their own way, haunted. For the ghost, the cause of her torment is her decision to take a bigger share of the fatal pills, thereby ensuring the survival of her lover. The cause of the narrator's unease is her failure to acknowledge the impact Chizuru's death had on her. In the light of day, things may not be as spooky as they seemed, but the darkness of the piece overwhelms.

Hard Luck is a slightly more uplifting affair, looking more to the future than the past. Another nameless woman visits her sister in hospital. Kuni is in a coma, and her fiance cannot cope with the aftermath of her cerebral haemorrhage. In his place, his mysterious brother Sakai, a teacher of Tai-Chi, strikes up a friendship with the narrator. Although the situation is desperate, its very awfulness concentrates the brief, unsought moments of pleasure for those watching Kuni's decline. Some sort of relief can usually be found even in the most tragic circumstances, Banana Yoshimoto suggests, in these two novellas which are as unsettling in their subject matter as they are unassuming in their composition.

Claudia Pugh-Thomas writes for the Gulf News.

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