“The first time Nakajima stayed over, I dreamed of my dead mom.”
This is the first sentence of Banana Yoshimoto’s latest novel to be translated into English, The Lake. I vaguely recall learning or reading somewhere some sort of creative writing related piece of wisdom—or maybe it’s just some advice, or simply someone’s particular philosophy. It might not even be very good advice, or a generally accepted piece of thought. It could be the most common idea in all fiction writing. I’m not sure. It’s just something I sort of remember coming across. (And now that I’ve demonstrated my impeccable credentials for book reviewing, let’s continue).
Anyway, the nugget of wisdom was that the first sentence of a novel should sum up the essence of the work to follow, to lay it all out on the table. It might not be obvious as to how that sentence relates to the following work, and of course the reader will probably forget it on the journey, but the first sentence, as important as it is, should tie the whole piece together in some way. And Yoshimoto does just that.
Although the one line summary on the back cover would summarize it a little differently (more on that later), The Lake is about Chihiro, an up-and-coming mural painter who was born out of wedlock, but by loving if unusual parents: her mother was a bar owner and her father a patron, and although they were in love and had a child together, they never actually got married. Her family life was happy, if not normal, but it was that abnormality that marked Chihiro as different her whole young adult life:
All my life, I cherished the possibility of escape. I worried that if I started going out with a guy and somehow botched things up and fell seriously in love, if we ended up having a splendid wedding in some hotel in town—or even worse, if I happened to get pregnant!—well, that would be the end of everything. So while my classmates thrilled over their puppy loves and fantasized about getting married, I held myself back. Before I did anything, I considered the possible consequences. And as soon as I graduated from high school, on the pretext of attending an art school in Tokyo, I made my getaway. I left home.
My body knew. It sensed the discrimination, subtle but real, all around me.
vq. Sure, she’s the daughter of a prominent local figure, but c’mon—he knocked up the “Mama-san” of a bar, right? That’s the kind of girl she is. The feeling oppressed me, squeezing all the more tightly because I knew it was only in this city, nowhere else, that my dad mattered.
vq. When I came to Tokyo and became an ordinary art school student, just like everyone else, I felt so free and light I thought I’d float up in the air.
After college, Chihiro’s mother becomes sick, and eventually dies. Sometime after that, she meets Nakajima. The two are remarkably alike, though it takes them weeks of smiling at each other across their windows to find out: they are both in their late twenties, neighbors, and they both have tragically lost their mother. They fall in love slowly, almost accidentally, because they are both, in their different ways, damaged from their respective traumas. The rest of The Lake follows Chihiro and Nakajima’s unusual relationship and life together, while Chihiro slowly starts to piece together the details of Nakajima’s particularly troubled past, and why it is so important, and painful, for Nakajima to visit some old friends at his old family lake house.
The details of Nakajima’s past are unveiled towards the very end of the book, but if you really need to know right away, you can unfortunately find it in the Amazon product description. Avoid reading that, if possible. It’s unfortunate, because the book is a wonderfully sweet tale about love in spite of a history of sorrow, about being on the cusp of adulthood and trying to find one’s future, although the mystery, if you can avoid the spoiler, is a pleasant, and poignant, surprise.
I’m willing to defend the choice, because although the reveal of Nakajima’s past would have been slightly more enjoyable with that element of surprise, that mystery is not really what the book is about, and it certainly doesn’t ruin the pleasures of reading this novel. Yoshimoto’s strength as a writer lies in her clear, unadorned prose; it is simple but effective, even elegant, brought into life in English by translator Michael Emmerich, who proves once again that he is one of, if not the, best Japanese translators working today. Chihiro is a lively, engaging narrator, likeable but not perfect—a genuine human being. Her humor and her sadness are palpable, and it’s a joy to watch her try to figure out her life. The Lake is a short, engaging novel, the kind where you want more to read not because it’s underdeveloped (though part of me wish there was more), but because it is so enjoyable to read. It’s not a particularly action-filled book, and there was a minor plot line that ends up fading away without resolution. I nonetheless found the novel engrossing throughout.
Banana Yoshimoto is one of the most translated contemporary Japanese authors, ever since her runaway bestseller Kitchen in the early 1990s, but it’s a testament to her skills as a writer that she’s been able to keep being published in English for almost twenty years now. The Lake is simply another example of her ability to write powerful, engaging, and accessible fiction.