This is my first proper dip into the longlist of this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize – that’s quite exciting, isn’t it? I read Yoshimoto’s Kitchen a long, long time ago, and to be fair, the thing that sticks out most about it in my mind is still her ridiculous penname. She’s quite a prolific writer, and has won an unholy number of awards in Japan for her work. Arguably most interesting, though, is that she is one of a small number of both popularly and critically well received female Japanese authors on the contemporary scene.
When Chihiro’s newly acquired sort-of-boyfriend, Nakajima, asks her to accompany him to a lake in the countryside, she is initially unsure. He is a broken man, and she is a broken woman – both have lost at least one parent, and the effects of this is that the two of them look to the other for comfort. She knows, though, he is hiding something. When this secret is finally revealed, it is up to Chihiro to decide what to do.
First things first – not a lot happens here. Yoshimoto is far more concerned with character studies and development than any kind of plot machinations. Chihiro is dealing with the recent death of her mother, and trying to work out what this means for her relationship with her father, who never legally recognised her. Perhaps this has more resonance in a Japanese context, due to their ridiculous citizenship laws, but it’s an interesting dynamic, and Chihiro seems to have resigned herself to having a somewhat distant relationship with a man who is biologically her father, but emotionally, maybe not so much.
But out of our two main characters, it is Nakajima that is the most complexly fascinating. He is at once deeply reserved emotionally and needy. His playing house with Chihiro when they move in together is a nice role reversal from that traditional Confucian male/female gender roles one is likely to see in mainstream Japan. While he clearly enjoys living with Chihiro, and relying on her for emotional support, his lack of desire to do anything in the boudoir points to some kind of clearly messed up childhood. The quest to understand Nakajima is the ostensible plot of the novel, and Chihiro’s own confusion about Nakajima are shared with the reader, forcing us to continue reading in order to find out what that murky past is.
Said secret is not revealed until about two thirds of the way through, though the blurb on my edition makes a less than subtle hint towards what it might be (clearly they were struggling to describe the almost non-existent plot). The eponymous lake has a lot to do with it, though. When Nakajima takes Chihiro out to this lake (complete with some beautiful imagery of a lake shrouded in mist, the only thing visible, a vibrant torii – lovely stuff), he introduces her to two friends, also clearly not a part of mainstream Japan. Mino, and his sister, Chii, live in a shack on the edge of a lake. Mino spends his time looking after Chii, who is desperately unwell, and has trouble talking, or indeed, even leaving her bed.
Nakajima’s relationship with these two is left unexplained for a long time, and Chihiro herself goes to visit them by herself to try and understand just what is going. There is some weird magical realist stuff going in the shack, with Mino claiming he can read his sister’s mind, since she herself cannot communicate with other people. Whether or not this ability is real or imagined is a question Yoshimoto is happy to throw open to her readers. I’m not sure it’s totally necessary, though it’s a nice touch of slight of hand- I thought we were going one way, and I was happy with where I thought we were going, but it all kind of fizzled out once the real twist came around.
This novel(la) is concerned with the periphery, the gaps that people face in their lives. Yoshimoto has gifted us with characters that have been forced to find comfort in each other, because the traditional constructs of Japanese society have failed them. The Lake is not, though, a blistering critique of said society – there is, instead, a positive note in the ending, and there is an understanding that, even on the periphery, stumbling upon other people to help you out can only be a good thing.