The Lake (2005) – Banana YOSHIMOTO

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.

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21 thoughts on “The Lake (2005) – Banana YOSHIMOTO

  1. ccorks says:

    I might check this out. I’ve toyed with the idea of reading her before, but maybe said silly pen name put me off. Thanks,

  2. Thanks for this Matt .. I’ll come back and read it properly, and comment properly, when I’ve read it myself (which will probably be in a few weeks as I haven’t got my copy yet).

  3. Will E says:

    Hey thanks for adding me to your blog roll! I really enjoyed The Lake too; I wrote a review of it for the Three Percent blog. I love your list of reviewed works too. I’ll definitely be stopping by to read your reviews.

    • Matthew Todd says:

      Thanks, too, for your website. As someone studying Japanese literature, it’s nice to find a place where I can find all the news at once.

  4. winstonsdad says:

    like sue I hope to read this one ,I read kitchen years ago and not read anything since so looking forward to connecting again ,all the best stu

  5. […] Tarun J TEPJAL (Fay) Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke The Lake – Banana YOSHIMOTO (Me) GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  6. […] More reviews from your hard-working Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize team!  Here’s Matt’s review of The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto, longlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize, and his […]

  7. […] Yoshimoto‘s The lake (from Japan), which is high in my priority list as I’ve read Yoshimoto before and I’m […]

  8. Lisa Hill says:

    Hi Matt, great review, I’m looking forward to reading this one:)

  9. […] Man Asian Literary Prize Team has that understanding of Japanese culture, so read his review at A Novel Approach for a completely different perspective to […]

  10. […] Matt of A Novel Approach and Lisa of ANZLitLovers, on our Man Asian team, have also reviewed it and are worth reading for their different takes. […]

  11. […] Lisa) Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke (Me; Fay; Mark) The Lake – Banana YOSHIMOTO (Me; Lisa; […]

  12. Tony says:

    I liked this one a lot more than I expected to – a more mature, reflective Yoshimoto and definitely less air-headed than some of her work can be :)

    • Matthew Todd says:

      As I say, I don’t have a great deal of experience with her work – Kitchen was a set text for a uni course years ago. But I like the almost meditative nature of The Lake, and though it is a stereotypically short Japanese-style novella, it packs in some good ideas.

      • Tony says:

        In previous books, ‘Goodbye Tsugumi’ and ‘Asleep’ especially, I was annoyed by the vapid, Americanised dialogue (which may be partly down to the translator), but I found this one to be more mature. I also thought Chihiro was an older, more solid version of some of Yoshimoto’s earlier female protagonists.

  13. […] the same time as everyone else, removing another levelling factor. Banana Yoshimoto’s novel, The Lake, was first published in 2005, a full four years before Murakami’s 1Q84 – though they […]

  14. […] The Wandering Falcon – Jamil AHMAD Rebirth – Jahnavi BARUA The Sly Company of People Who Care – Rahul BHATTACHARYA River of Smoke – Amitav GHOSH Please Look After Mother – SHIN Kyung-sook Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke The Lake – YOSHIMOTO Banana […]

  15. […] Lake by Banana Yoshimoto. Reviews by Matt, Sue, Lisa, and […]

  16. […] Lake by Banana Yoshimoto. Reviews by Matt, Sue, Lisa, […]

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