I read Banana Yoshimoto’s first novel, Kitchen, two decades ago as part of a summer class on modern world literature. She and her memorable pen name had created quite a stir in Japan — launching “Banana-mania” — and her English translations had been well-received too. I found Kitchen much more accessible than many of the violent post-colonial works we were reading. So when I found her 13th novel, The Lake, on my local library’s shelves a few weeks ago, I picked it up.
Chihiro, the heroine, moves to Tokyo to pursue her artistic career. Like Laurel from The Optimist’s Daughter (review #2), she’s mourning the loss of a parent — in this case, her mother. Her father (like Judge McKelva!) is a prominent figure in his small town, but his partner (they never married) was the “Mama-san” of a bar, sometimes called the “club.” This seems to have more of a seedy connotation in Japanese than it does in English. Regardless, she wasn’t exactly in a line of work your extended relatives would approve of. And so, Chihiro was always an outsider.
In Tokyo, she meets another outsider, a young man named Nakajima. The two of them slowly fall in love. Yet he has a deep secret that keeps them from having a normal, intimate relationship. As she journeys with him, and then on her own, back to a lake where he lived with his mother, his dark past — a kidnapping, a cult — comes to light. And once it comes to light, there is hope that they can recover together. They can move to Paris, and be rid of their pasts once and for all.
At times, Yoshimoto is disarmingly thoughtful. Chihiro is a muralist, and talking of her art, she is probably echoing Yoshimoto’s thoughts on novel writing: “Things progress most smoothly when the end is in view, and all you have to do is keep adding layers.” Or then there is this description of the characters at her mother’s club. “They don’t get slimy at night because they’re drunk, they get slimy because they’re already slimy to being with.”
But then there are more bizarre images: “I trusted him with my whole body, even with my skin.” There is a subplot where the sponsor of one of Chihiro’s murals wants her to incorporate the company logo, but you never get the sense that the outcome of that fight actually matters. It’s also unclear what Nakajima suffered while with the cult. He chose to escape. But he also tells Chihiro that he enjoyed parts of his captivity. One of his friends there, also a child, helped him figure out to escape, and this was a noble sacrifice on his part, but the arc of people’s emotions isn’t entirely clear.
It’s a reasonable read. There are probably better novels. I’m giving another of Yoshimoto’s works a try in the next few weeks. I’ll report back on whether that influences my thoughts on this one!