Author Archives: Matt Todd

Booker Prize 2015: Shortlists and Winners

That’s it!

You’ll notice there are three books missing from my reviews over the past three days – I have read them, but just couldn’t bring myself to expend any energy on writing about them: Sleeping on Jupiter is dull, The chimes is an average example of a dystopian future, and Satin island forgets that a novel has to have emotional heft as well as intellectual.

I’m still worried the Americans have invaded:

So. The shortlist. I’m surprised, slightly, that my own shortlist is actually pretty similar to the official one.

My shortlist:
Did you ever have a family, Bill Clegg
A brief history of seven killings, Marlon James
The fishermen, Chigozie Obioma
Lila, Marilynne Robinson
The year of the runaways, Sunjeev Sahota
A little life, Hanya Yanagihara

Among those six, there are four that I would be happy to see win: James, Obioma, Sahota or Yanagihara. All are spectacularly excellent novels that deserve a wide readership, and really speak to a lot of what is going on in the world today.

But I am going to pick a winner. And I know it’s the favourite, and I know it’s an easy out, but I’m really hoping A little life gets up. I know it’s divisive, but for me, it really was the best thing on this longlist. I don’t think I’ve ever read a 700-page brick so fast, and even though it’s often melodramatic, overwrought and ridiculous, it really is, underneath all that, a book about the incredible strength love can give us if we just let it in.

And that’s it! If I remember, I’ll write a reaction post to the winner – tomorrow night, AEDST.

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Booker Prize 2015: Modern Britain

The Americans this year are all about family. There are no big state-of-the-nation novels about America here this year. The Brits, though, seem to be in a more self-reflective mood, and there’s a particularly nice piece of symmetry that the two novels here are are written by Granta Best Young British Novelists—Andrew O’Hagan in 2003 and Sunjeev Sahota in 2013.

Andrew O’Hagan was last shortlisted for the Booker in 1999 for his first novel Our fathers. Sixteen years later, The illuminations, a novel about, amongst other things, the Iraq War, is in contention.

Anne lives in a nursing home, where her neighbour Maureen comes over to help her remember what she’s forgotten. Together they go to the Memory Club to remind themselves what they no longer know—for Anne, this means remembering her life as a photographer, as well as her husband, who was killed during his service in the army. Now, her grandson Luke is in Iraq, though she often forgets this. Meanwhile, Anne’s estranged daughter Alice is doing all she can to keep it together, sandwiched between her increasingly forgetful mother and her always-in-danger son.

For the most part, The illuminations flits between Anne’s life in this drearily small apartment in which she lives and Luke’s more muscular adventures in Iraq. It is the latter set of sequences that really bring this novel to life, and highlight the affect this ridiculous war has not only on the people who fight it, but the people who live it vicariously at home in Britain. It’s strange that there are still so few good novels about our time in both Iraq and Afghanistan (The yellow birds springs to mind for the Americans, and I am struggling to think of any Australian equivalent), but here O’Hagan has written something horrifyingly believable.

Luke himself is only in his late 20s, but already cynical and world-weary, seeing the war as an endless conflict between drugged-up young men brought up on FPSs and Red Bull, brought to a foreign land to fight an enemy they don’t understand, with young men who can’t even read, brought up on rhetoric they don’t understand. It’s a thoroughly depressing point of view, and though Luke tries to make sense of it with his direct superior, Major Scullion, he only finds a man broken by the repetition of conflicts stretching back decades.

When Luke does eventually return to Scotland, ruined by one particular experience, it is up to his mother and grandmother to help him reintegrate into a nation that is still struggling to work out what it wants—this is, after all, post-referendum Scotland, reaching out for an identity in modern Britain.

The illuminations reminds us that we are still at war, that there are still young men and women in far-flung places fighting for something that no one can really remember anymore.

If Andrew O’Hagan is concerned with what happens when young Britons go out into the world, Sunjeev Sahota is far more interested in seeing what happens when young Indians come to Britain. The year of the runaways, as the title suggests, takes a year in the life of three young Indian men—and one young Indian-English woman—who run away from their lives in an attempt to make a better one. It’s a surprisingly timely novel, considering the recent mass movements of people from war-torn places into Europe.

What is good about this novel is that Sahota doesn’t try to draw too large a bow when choosing his three leads. There are, of course , similarities between them, but this is not a novel using characters to make a point. Each of them is given the space to be their own person.

Both Avtar and Randeep have made their way to England on legitimate visas, but have no intention of keeping to the rules. Despite being accepted into a college, Avtar is there to make enough money to send back home to his family, where his father, a former government worker, is mentally ill. Randeep, too, is here to make money, on a spousal visa via a marriage that looks real only on paper. Both are exploited as cheap labour, and the struggles they go through to keep their heads above water are touching, considering what they went through to get where they are. (Sound familiar?)

Tochi, though is an illegal immigrant. Fleeing northern India, where his family was massacred by extremists, he moved to the West on the promise of a safe—and rich—life. (Sound familiar?) Of course, once he gets there, it becomes clear he has been sold a lie, particularly since he comes from a lower caste. The old prejudices are still alive and well in England.

The other main character, Narinder, is Randeep’s visa wife. Raised a devout Sikh in England, her story acts as a counterbalance to these three tales of migration. Still a runaway, she has married Randeep to help him come to England . Her narrative opens a completely new line of questioning, as we watch her move from being a quiet, devoted religious young woman to something a bit more human. It is here that one of the driving forces of the novel comes to the fore, exploring what happens to individual when they have been cut off from their communities and forced to flee to another. How do people cope with this upheaval?

The year of the runaways might, at first blush, sound a like a ripped-from-the-headlines novel, but Sahota is smart enough, and good enough, to make sure that these characters are not ciphers, but real people. By bringing a human face to problems that so often seem intangible, he show his gifts as an emerging chronicler of Britain and its people.

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Booker Prize 2015: American Families

I’ve already done one post about families, but it really is such an important part of fiction that I find myself here again. This time, though, I’m going by culture: this is all about the modern American family and how two very different authors view these relationships.

Bill Clegg has a history as a literary agent, but Did you ever have a family is his first attempt at writing fiction. Set in a small town, it looks at how one event changes the lives not just of one family, but several.

The characters themselves weave a tangled web: Lolly and Will are about to be married, when the house in which they are staying in their hometown goes up in smoke. Racked by guilt and depression, Lolly’s mother June is also mourning the loss of her partner, Luke, who is being blamed for the blaze. Meanwhile, Luke’s mother Lydia is also coming to terms with the loss of her son, while also being stalked by Silas, the teenager who was first on the scene of the house.

It’s a dense set of relationships to get your head around—particularly in such a short book—and it takes some time for them to all come into focus. The novel shifts around fairly quickly, moving not only from character to character, but also to past and present, and sometimes future. Slowly, as these people resolve into something more than shapes in fog, we see the full tragedy.

These people were already broken: June’s relationship with her daughter was fraught ever since she found love with Luke, a man the same age as Lolly, and a former convict. Luke, meanwhile, had finally found meaning in his life after being cut free by Lydia, a single mother left with a son that no one wanted, who was trying to find a sense of belonging in her own life. The cruel irony of this novel is that just as these people have found each other to begin the process of creating a new family, their lives are ripped apart, and once more scattered to the winds.

The twist, such as it is, is literally signposted from the first page, so if you’re expecting huge revelations at the end of this experience, prepare to be disappointed. Perhaps like so many things in our lives, there is no meaning behind such seismic events—just a mistake made by a person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But Clegg doesn’t seem to be interested in shocking or aweing us into submission: Did you ever have a family is a surprisingly small-scale story that, while anything by optimistic throughout, does seem to end on a hopeful note, that people can actually get past, or at least come to terms with, horrific events.

A spool of blue thread, by Anne Tyler, is an altogether lighter affair. Though she’s been around forever, I’ve never read any of Tyler’s other works, but it certainly seems that this one is emblematic of her wider oeuvre, tending towards the cute and the cosy as opposed to anything too heavy.

The question, then, is whether this approach works. Clearly some of this will be down to personal preference, but if, as an author, you are keeping things light, you have to be very good to prosecute cases about relationships—and humanity—without it seeming cloying or twee.

For the most part, Tyler pulls this off, and her soft tale of the Whitshank family is certainly engaging. Even though she does deal with some pretty heavy topics—including accidental kidnapping and parental death—at no stage are you overwhelmed by the weight of these themes that, in the hands of others, could be too much.

The Whitshank family is well drawn: the father, Red, is a typical old man, hard of hearing, and good with his hands. His wife, Abby, is a recovering 1960s hippie, still prone to random acts of kindness towards strangers, and still slightly overbearing in the eyes of her children. Those children (Denny, Mandy, Jeannie and Stem) have grown up, and while three of them are biologically Whitshanks, the last—Stem—is the result of what can legally be described as an accidental kidnapping. It’s a weird moment, but Tyler uses it to remind us that family is not just those people who are born to and around us, but the people who choose to live with and call our own.

The limitations of this style are perhaps most keenly felt in this relationship between Denny and Stem. The two have an uneasy relationship: as a child, Denny resented Stem for coming into their house and instantly becoming their father’s favourite. Whether directly because of this or not, Denny’s life has been fractured and unsettled, much to the dismay of the rest of the Whitshank family, who all have stable families and careers. This all comes to a head when Denny and Stem start physically fighting, but this tends to get lost in a novel that, in some ways, shies away from really getting into the heads of these two men.

Though the novel does go back through time to explain both Abby and Red’s courtship, as well as Red’s parents, these two stories are not as interesting as the dynamics of the present day family—except for the small matter of Red’s mother being about 15 years younger than his father, which was a problem when they met when she was 14. These pieces of family hagiography are nice, but don’t add that much to the central plot.

There’s room in the world, I think, for this kind of relaxed novel. I don’t think we all want to read A little life every time we crack open a book. The danger, though, of novel like A spool of blue thread is that they become so calm as to be unforgettable. And while this was a pleasant and engaging way to spend a few days, it’s safe to say I won’t be thinking about the Whitshanks into the future.

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Booker Prize 2015: New Histories

The historical novel has always done well in the Booker. The last three winners (The narrow road to the deep north, The luminaries, Bring up the bodies) have all explored history in surprising ways. The two novels here both take a lesser known part of history as their starting point for stories that try to fill the gaps in our knowledge about what happened before us.

Laila Lalami, a Moroccan-American author, takes an historical document as her starting point. In 1527, the Castilian conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez and a crew of 600 men sailed from Spain to the Gulf Coast of the United States to claim “La Florida” for the Spanish crown. While the mission was a complete failure, four men survived, one of whom was an unnamed Moorish slave. When the official histories came out, he was whitewashed out of them. In The moor’s account, Lalami imagines his story.

There’s such scope here to really examine two linked concepts—the colonisation of an entire continent by Europeans juxtaposed with man who has been on the receiving end of that colonisation—and Lalami makes an attempt to explore both. Thought the main narrative of the novel concerns itself with this horrifically failed mission in Florida, the first half is also interspersed with flashbacks to Estebanico’s life before he became a slave. What is interesting about this history is that Estebanico chose to become a slave—he sold himself into the trade to give his family the money to survive after his own businesses . In some ways, then, he is not a typical slave—he is not the result of a conquest, but of a failure of the colonial system to provide for its subjects.

Perhaps this, then, is why he cannot seem to see that the mission he is on is not only doomed, but morally questionable. His entire account is so dry, so lacking in emotion, that it feels like we are reading a history as opposed to a diary. I’m not sure this is a deliberate choice on Lalami’s part, but it does distance the reader from the story, and results in a failure to make you care about what is happening both to Estebanico and his fellow travellers. Instead of making the history come alive, it is reduced to a series of events—some things happen to these people, but there doesn’t seem to be any emotional investment in what happens to them.

Marlon James, too, takes an obscure piece of history—the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Kingston in 1976—to begin his novel. But while The moor’s account becomes dry and stale, A brief history of seven killings brings to life a world full of colour, passion, drugs and death.

The first thing to note is that this schizophrenic novel is long. With a cast of hundreds, James takes us through the lead up to the event, as well as the ripple effect of it, with a chorus of voices that weave in and out of the narrative, sometimes for decades, and others for just a day. Despite this, each and every voice has its own strength, and it’s easy to pick up the threads, even if you are coming back to a perspective after several hundred pages.

The greatest strength of the novel is the first 250 pages, which tell with impressive detail the story not only of the people who decide to kill the Singer, as he is known here, but the people around them trying to make sense of Jamaica in the 1970s. There are the two warring gangs, Copenhagen City and the Eight Lanes, who are terrorising the streets, and finding themselves more and more involved with politics. There’s Nina, out of a job and obsessed with the Singer. Alex Pierce, Rolling Stone journalist trying to file the greatest story on the Singer anyone has ever read. As each of them circle closer towards the big day, James show us a huge cross-section of people who call Jamaica home, and what this place is like as the Cold War rages on around them, and as Jamaica is pulling itself towards something resembling democracy.

Once the assassination attempt happens, though, these players scatter around the country and the continent, living their lives and moving on. Alex Pierce, the journalist, cannot help but continue investigating the story: who were the people who tried to kill the Singer? As he does, though, he finds himself drawn into a world he cannot handle.

It is here that Josey Wales, the deputy of Copenhagen City, comes into focus. This second half is really his story, as he becomes leader of the Storm Posse, an international drug trafficking organisation that goes between Jamaica and New York, cutting down all those who dare to get in its way. This gang becomes slowly more intertwined with both the characters from before the event, and Jamaica itself, as it tries to find a way beyond the gang violence and drug trade that defined it in the past. The big question, though, is whether this is possible when the relationship between the politicians and the gangs is so close.

A story so rooted in place could not be told in standard English. From Nina’s attempts to sound more posh to Josey’s refusal to speak anything other than Jamaican English, via a frighteningly large vocabulary of uniquely Jamaican expletives, James experiments with English in a way that no other novel on the shortlist does. This experimentation adds another layer of authenticity, and reminds the reader that, though this is history, it is a history that was experienced, and is still alive.

There’s no doubt that A brief history of seven killings is an impressive piece of work. It’s probably a little too long for its own good, and while the latter 350 pages don’t quite live up to the blisteringly good first 250, it is nevertheless a painfully intense novel that examines the people on the periphery, those who are caught up in a pivotal moment, and how their lives are shaped by it. It’s not perfect, but when it’s good, it’s very, very good.

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Booker Prize 2015: Troubled Childhoods

For those who read this blog that are not Australian, a bit of context: we are in the midst of a Royal Commission exploring institutional responses to child abuse throughout the past century in Australia. And what is most shocking about this Commission is that this abuse was systematic and widespread—so many stories are of children being abused by adults in positions of power, and no one doing anything about it. Both novels here ask the next logical question: what next?

Perhaps the most damning answer to this is in Hanya Yanagihara’s A little life. Ostensibly about four young friends in New York, this novel morphs into a blisteringly intense look at the way in which the mind reforms itself in response to sustained, abuse relationships as a child.

It is in the main character, Jude, that Yanagihara focuses all these abuses—in many ways, it seems unreal that a child found in a dumpster could be rescued by a religious cult of faux-priests, only to escape with one who shows him kindness, only to be sold into prostitution—and then after his escape, rescued by a sadistic doctor who refuses to let him into the world. It is simultaneously the most horrific and most compelling narrative in the entire longlist.

Without wanting to be too blunt, this really fucks Jude up. Sixteen years of abuse makes it literally impossible for him to trust anyone, despite (eventually) being surrounded by a whole network of people who love and care for him. This irony is made all the more stark as Jude, throughout his charmed life, finds himself ridiculously wealthy and materially successful. The question, then, is whether someone like Jude can escape his own past.

Yanagihara seems to think not. Despite these (sometimes enabling) networks, Jude continues to resort to cutting himself to release himself from the physical and emotional pain he still carries from his childhood. Rather than speaking to anyone, he literally tells no one about what happened to him for almost forty years, somewhat ironically increasing the distance between himself and those who care for him. For Jude, any mention of this time is an complete reminder of his own inability to control it, and in his mind, the physical scars he carries with him are disgusting signs that make him unlovable.

Allowing Jude (almost) all the privileges that anyone could possibly have someone (white, upper-class, wealthy), as well as removing any references that would ground the story in one particular time, Yanagihara highlights the fact that the repercussions of a childhood of abuse will be felt throughout a life, for the entirety of the life. And, in fact, those repercussions might even be responsible for the end of a life.

Despite being 700 pages long, A little life is hard to stop. Containing some of the most graphic and horrifyingly detailed passages of self-harm I have ever read, this novel is a beautiful reminder of both the greatest love and the most horrifying evil humans are capable of.

If A little life is a big, brash, bombastic novel, then Lila is a much more subtle, refined thing, though no less concerned with exploring the ways in which a troubled childhood can continue to affect adults long after the fact. Though Lila is ostensibly the third novel in Robinson’s Gilead sequence, I was blissfully unaware of this fact as I read it, and didn’t feel like I was missing any vital information. Further reading suggests that this was the case for others, and rather than acting as a sequel, is something of a side-quel to both Gilead and Homecoming.

At a very young age, Lila is taken (or rescued, depending on your point of view) from outside a house by a woman named Doll. Together, they walk across the state, trying to eke out a living doing odd jobs and itinerant work. Eventually, though, Lila grows up and marries a preacher man. All of a sudden, she finds herself settled—and pregnant—with the Reverend John Ames, an elderly priest making a living in the small town of Gilead, forcing her to question whether or not this is really the life she wants.

Lila is not stupid, but she is uneducated: her life up until this point has been transient: Doll has dragged her around the state doing odd jobs, pushing her in—and then pulling her out of—schools, meaning that though she has basic reading and writing skills, she has never taken the time to sit down and contemplate her place in life. Lila has become hypersensitive to being both criticised and patronised. While her husband does all he can to make her feel comfortable, as well as give her space both physically and emotionally to grow, she bristles at every perceived slight. For the longest time, she cannot bear to discuss her thoughts about her readings—having become recently acquainted with the Bible—with him, for fear of being seen as stupid or ignorant.

Here lies the central conundrum for Lila. Having found herself in a comfortable position, with a man willing to give her the space she needs, she suddenly doesn’t know if this is really what she wants. Does she want to settle down as wife and mother? Or does she simply not have the ability to live like that? Has her upbringing so affected her life?

But maybe this is what Robinson wants us to consider. Both Lila and John find it hard to understand the other. They can make a life—and a baby—together, but the other partner in the marriage is unknowable to both. Lila cannot understand why John wants her, particularly since she has made it clear she may not stay. John, though, cannot understand Lila, a woman who has spent most of her life on the road, drifting. And yet, somehow they make it work, bringing a young boy into the world, and giving him a life neither of them could have ever had.

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Booker Prize 2015: Fractured Families

Families have always provided a rich vein of inspiration for authors looking to examine people, and this year’s Booker Prize longlist shows that there is no sign of that slowing down. I want to talk today about two quite different novelists—a first-time Nigerian man, and a well-established Irish woman—who are both interested in how families in their respective contexts cope with stress.

Despite being a first novel, The fishermen never feels anything less than steady and assured. It is a fairly simple presence: one day, four brothers are out fishing at the local river—a forbidden pastime. On their way home, the local crazy man, Omi-Ala, tells the oldest that he will be killed by a fisherman. This sets off a chain of events that will, inevitably, change the family in ways no one could imagine.

At first glance, this might sound more Harry Potter than Booker longlist. But in Akure, where God is king, and human law seems flimsy at best, these four brothers are free to roam the streets, particularly since their father has gone away for work, and their mother is left at home with the two youngest children to look after. And so, in the absence of any steadying force in their lives, these boys are completely and utterly enthralled by the stories of Omi-Ama and his abilities. The oldest is no more than 13 or 14, an age where these kinds of stories really get into your head and mess you up. And so it is with Ikenna, who really truly believes that one of his brothers is going to kill him.

What is perhaps most terrifying about this is that at each step of this descent into madness, for these brothers, their actions are completely logical. What begins as a little bit of innocent rebellion against their clearly insane older brother slowly and carefully turns into something far more horrific—and though perhaps in the hands of a lesser author, these actions could be considered contrived, Obioma’s ability to turn the screw on his reader so methodically is perhaps the greatest strength of The fishermen. Though the characters are well-drawn throughout, it is the narrative structure that is perhaps most impressive here. Despite the chaotic nature of the city in which they live, and indeed the lives of the brothers themselves, it is easy to be caught up in the suffocating atmosphere of a household living in fear.

And yet, much of the writing is lyrical. Obioma begins each chapter with a beautiful metaphor that he spins out throughout the entire chapter, never letting up. Contrasted with the quite intensely psychological violence that is taking place both within and without this family—while the four brothers bear the brunt of this violence, their mother’s rapidly deteriorating mental health in the face of what she is attempting to control is another subtle but necessary touch—this style never veers toward feeling flowery or purple.

If The fishermen is the story of a family slowly unravelling, then The green road is its mirror image. Anne Enright has always been known for her ability to get inside the workings of a family (which is why The gathering won the Booker in 2007), and this novel is no different. But while The fishermen is about one family living under one roof, The green road explores what family means when each member is scattered around the globe.

The first half of the novel is essentially made up of four short stories: seemingly keen to move out of home as early as possible, the Madigan children find themselves far away from their country home, unwilling to think of their mother left behind. Dan runs to New York in the 80s after a failed stint as a student priest—the biggest problem being his love of men. In the 00s, his brother Emmet has run away to Mali, and though he thinks he has found his soulmate in another aid worker, he cannot seem to find the right way to talk to her. Constance is stuck at home with a husband who loves her but doesn’t seem to care that she is spending the day at an oncologist. The youngest, Hanna, has just had a baby with a man, though is finding it hard to come to terms with this, particularly since it also means coming to terms with her drinking.

Each of these sections, by themselves, is a perfect slice-of-life story that draws each character perfectly. None of them seem to be able to have a functional relationship with their significant other, and struggles to reconcile what they want from life with what they have. Despite being on the other side of the world, Dan struggles to come to terms with who he is, and this leads to perhaps the most touching part of the entire novel—a tiny but perfectly formed look at how the AIDS epidemic ravaged an entire community that spent years looking over its shoulder in an attempt to see who was next.

The second half of The green road, however, loses some of the momentum that had built up over these vignettes—as these characters gather for a combined Christmas, Enright has to change gears to allow all four—five, in fact, if you include their mother—characters their place on the page, and doesn’t quite manage to pull it off. Rather than ending with a sense of purpose—whether positive or negative—the narrative trails off as these characters, so vivid in their own lives, are forced to act as search and rescue for their frail mother, who has wandered off into the wilderness. Maybe, though, this loss of individuality in the family setting is what Enright wants us to see: forced by a false sense of duty when coming together as a family unit, there can be no space for individuals wishing to strike out on their own.

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Booker Prize 2015

I’m back!

Kind of.

I know this place has been kind of quiet this year – real life keeps getting in the way of me sitting down to write about what I’ve written – which is a shame, ’cause I’ve read some crackers this year: The Spare Room being the most memorable example.

Anyway, in an attempt to get back on the writing horse, I set myself a little goal: read the whole Booker Prize longlist and review them. Which, somehow, I have done.

Over the next day, I’m putting up all my reviews of this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist. I’ve done something a little different, though, and will leave it up to you to see what that is.

Just a few thoughts before we get started. I think the shortlist is about half right, which is symptomatic of the longlist a a whole. About half of the entries are brilliant, and about half are not.

I’m still worried about the introduction of Americans into the mix changes the identity of the prize, and since the official longlist has several Americans on it – and the fact that the favourite to win is American – I think that worry is justified, but it’s clearly not going to change back, so we have to deal with it.

I’ll put up my shortlist and winner tomorrow night, just before the official announcement, with some final thoughts.

Masks (1958) – ENCHI Fumiko

原文名: 女面
作家: 円地 文子
発行年: 昭和33(1958年)

Recommended to me by a colleague, this is the last of my January in Japan reviews. Any keen readers will have noted that I have managed to get through the month reviewing only female authors—this was deliberate, and I hope to do it again in the future.

Ibuki and Mikame are two men fascinated by the same women, Yasuko. Recently widowed, she is still working for her deceased husband’s mother, Mieko, in completing his academic work. But as Ibuki and Mikame are drawn to this beautiful young woman, they find themselves caught up in something much larger than themselves. And though they realise they are being manipulated, they cannot work out by whom, and if it really is all for the best.

Perhaps the best place to begin the discussion is the title. Though translated as Masks in English, the Japanese title, 女面 (on’na-men), refers to a kind of mask used in noh theatre, worn by men playing female roles (noh is so traditional, it doesn’t let women on stage, leaving men to play these roles). As with other noh masks, there are several stock on’na-men that represent certain stock characters—including those from which the three sections—ryo no onna, masugami (増髪) and fukai (深井)—come. The implication, of course, that the three female characters of the novel each align with one of these masks.

Enchi takes this idea of female masks quite literally. The two main female characters are almost impossible to read in their motivations, and as such, the title becomes a little obvious. This is a novel that suggests that women are inherently unknowable—that men are unable to understand what it is that drives women, because everything a woman does is an act, a mask they wear to hide their true motivations.

So we arrive at the end, and are still not quite sure which plan was in action the whole time, and whether or not it actually worked. Did Mieko set out to ensure her daughter died in childbirth, removing the stain from the family line? Or was Yasuko so determined to have a child, she was happy to sacrifice her late husband’s twin to get a child that shared his DNA? Perhaps we will never know.

Perhaps it’s a simply cultural misunderstanding. I have read my fair share of Japanese literature, but Genji is not one I’ve ever been brave enough to tackle. And since Masks is so heavily reliant on a fairly deep understanding of that novel, perhaps it is just beyond me. Because when I finished, there was a definite sense of deflation, of waiting for the next part of the story to begin. The women have tricked the men, hiding behind their womanly masks, but that’s about it. I’m not sure the concept of people hiding behind facades is exactly new—even Mishima was doing it in 1949.

Masks is fascinating, but ultimately frustrating. The lack of exploration of the character motivation is, of course, the point of the novel, but without an understanding of the masks that are being used to define the women, it leaves one a little cold. Maybe a reread after tackling Genji is the way to go.

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Manazuru (2006) – KAWAKAMI Hiromi

作家:川上 弘美

The Japanese Literature Publishing Project is a Japanese Government program dedicated to promoting Japanese literature in translation. A noble goal, to be sure, but if this novel is anything to go by, they might want to rethink the texts they’re putting on their recommendation lists.

Unable to come to terms with the fact that her husband went missing thirteen years ago, Kei is drawn to the seaside town of Manazuru, where she hopes to find answers. In doing so, though, she comes dangerously close to losing those that are most important to her.

Kawakami taps into that very modern strain of Japanese literature made so popular world-wide thanks to He Who Shall Not Be Named, a genre in which bizarre things happen to people, leaving them isolated and alone in modern Japan. It is not a sub-genre that I can particularly get behind, so the quasi-fantasy setting, along with a very weak ending, did nothing for me.

The most intriguing parts come from the discussions between Kei and Seiji, in which he beates her for not being able to let go of her missing husband. Of course, this is probably wildly unfair, particularly when Seiji himself is still married with children—not exactly a model of commitment. Seiji is, annoyingly, correct though—Rei is living half a life, unable to come to terms with the fact that her husband has been missing for so long. In many ways, it would be better if he had been found dead—at least, then, she could find some kind of closure.

Kawakami, though, refuses to give her character (or her readers) any closure. About halfway through, there’s a slight hint that, actually Kei already knows what has happened to her husband, but is subconsciously choosing to repress the memory. Which is fine, but after about three pages, it’s never mentioned again.

Combined with this inability to move on is the very real fact that her daughter, Momo, is growing up and very much moving on with her life, as only teenagers can. Rei finds herself increasingly unable to understand her daughter’s actions. It is perhaps this isolation that drives her to the seaside town of Manazuru, sent by a gut feeling and, as it turns out, a mysterious spirit woman who seems to be able to communicate from beyond the grave.

I have no problem with fantasy, or even magical realism—and I get why Kawakami is using it here—but that doesn’t preclude it from being mind-numbingly dull here. There’s enough material here (from Kei’s meditations on family and motherhood, to the increasing isolation between mother and daughter—over two generations) to not have to rely on these cheap parlour tricks. Instead, though, we have another novel written in the wake of He Who Must Not Be Named that thinks his style is the only way to write a contemporary Japanese novel. Which is just plain wrong.

Just one final fun fact before I end this. I looked up Manazuru to see if it was a real place—it is. But in my research, I also discovered that another author, Shiga Naoya (志賀直哉) wrote a short story in 1920 also called Manazuru, about a young boy who falls in love with an older woman. I can’t find a lot of information on it, other than a few blog posts, but if anyone knows more about it—and the relationship to this novel—I’d be super interested to hear.

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The Goddess Chronicle (2008) – KIRINO Natsuo

作家:桐野 夏生

Many creation myths rely on a man. Those that don’t—like the one laid down in the Kojiki—requires the woman to know her place: subservient to the man. Indeed, in the text of the Japanese creation myth itself, the woman is punished for speaking out of turn. She literally is not allowed to have thoughts or ideas before the man does. Needless to say, this has informed a great deal of contemporary Japanese society. In The Goddess Chronicle, Natsuo Kirino interrogates this tale: what’s in it for the woman?

On a tiny teardrop island in the middle of the ocean two sisters are born. The older, Kamikuu, is destined for great things, while the younger, Namima, must live her life according to a strict set of rules laid down for women. But when one terrible event splits the two sisters forever, Namima finds herself in a place quite unlike anything she has ever known.

Nanima’s discovery that her older sister is the embodiment of purity, coincides with her realising that she is destined to be the representation of impurity. Without any action from her, society has forced her into a role she has no desire to play. From a young age, she is reminded that she is impure and dirty—an ugly woman with no place in polite society. Though, at first, she accepts her lot, as she grows older, she begins to rebel. In a neat flip of the Christian creation myth, it is a man—actually, a boy—who encourages her to rebel, to eat the forbidden food, and to reject her societal rules. Quickly, the two fall in love.

When Namima is (inevitably, perhaps) killed by her husband for his own selfish purposes, she is transported to the underworld, where she finds herself in the company of Izanami, the original female god who, with her husband, Izanaki, created the world. Izanami is filled with bitterness and rage at the world of men. For Izanami, this rage comes from being treated so poorly by both her husband and the creation god itself. Killed for speaking out of turn, she must now tend to the underworld as the goddess of death. Meanwhile, her husband is allowed to continue to wander the earth, sleeping with women and populating the world. Understandably, pain and anger infuse every single one of her actions.

By placing these two women next to each other, Kirino invites us to consider the pain women face at the hands of men. For Nanima, the pain is physical—her man saw her only as a biological tool, a vessel for his child to continue the family line. For Izanami, her crime was thinking outside the box. Both of their lives have been ruined by gender constructs beyond their control, by a world that sees women having a specific purpose and place. Any deviation from that line will quite literally result in a hell beyond anything on this earth.

This is a novel about violence against women, both physical and psychological. Kirino reminds us that, though this may be a myth, it is a myth that has shaped so much of what we believe today. It is a message to anyone who is listening: women have, since the beginning of creation, had to carry a burden far beyond what should be allowed, and perhaps this should be examined more closely by those in power.

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