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Book Review: The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

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In The Lake, as in a number of her novels, Banana Yoshimoto takes as a theme the power of family, and of loss to effect the lives of her characters. Here, the characters are Chihiro, a daughter of a non traditional family – a “mama-san” and owner of a rural/small town club, and a father who is “A person of local import” who is not married to her mother. Chihiro feels distanced from her father, as if he only really existed for her mother and she finds him ridiculous because of his airs as a big fish in a small pond. Chihiro has gone to school for a small degree in design and makes her living painting murals, or as she puts it, little more than a sign painter. Chihiro has just gone through a period of her life where she has cared for her mother during a terminal illness. After her mothers death, she leaves her small town behind to make her way in Tokyo.

In Tokyo, Chihiro has an anonymous life. Lovers for entertainment, but not love. Acquaintances, but no real friends. She specializes in painting murals on buildings and in neighborhood which are marked for destruction due to urban renewal. Still haunted by the passing of her mother, she is both anchorless and directionless. But across the courtyard of her apartment building she starts noticing Nakajima and he becomes her anchor, her friend, before they ever do more than wave to each other across the courtyard.

At first, Chihiro and Nakajima speak as they pass in the elevator, and eventually Nakajima starts coming to Chihiro’s apartment for meals and they meet for coffee. Chihiro is drawn to Nakajima and doesn’t understand why. He is painfully thin and has a stooped posture; in other words, he isn’t ‘sexy’. But he is intelligent and she learns that he is studying for a doctorate in research, specializing in DNA and genetics. Chihiro also finds him odd because he isn’t pushy sexually, and she slowly learns that sex is difficult for him , even emotionally painful. He hints at a traumatic event in his past that explains his lack of a sex drive, and also nightmares that he suffers.

As the two become more than friends, Chihiro comes to value the relationship, even though it lacks sex. In short, their relationship becomes one of love without the traditional trappings of a romance. As the trust builds, Nakajima asks Chihiro to accompany him to The Lake of the title, where friends of his, apparently tied to Nakajima’s tragic past, live.

The journey to the lake reveals some “nearly-mystical” and mysterious emotions and scenes. There, Chihiro is introduced to Mino and Chii, a brother an sister who make their living as seers. The sister is bed-ridden and is hardly ever conscious in the typical fashion. Her brother speaks for her, in her voice, that she sends to him telepathically. Chihiro also becomes “fond” of the tea served by the pair. Mino tell her that its properties must come from the local waters of the lake.

This visit serves to bind Chihiro even more to Nakijima, but upon returning to Tokyo, she begins to worry that their intellects and Nakijima’s goals will drive them apart. Nakajima wishes upon completing his doctorate to go to France, and Chihiro sees herself as a simple “sign painter” with lower ambitions and even unable to meet Nakijima’s ambitions on the same level. However, from this point she starts to take her art seriously, and dream of becoming a serious artist.

At just over 200 pages, the story is still very involved and beautifully paced in revealing not only the obvious plot, but in the emotions and personal psyche of the main characters. At times the dialog seems overly juvenile, but it becomes clear that the author is speaking in the voice of two young people and that voice is very realistic.

On one level, the story is about unconventional people in a conventional relationship to outward appearances. Yoshimoto’s works are often trivialized by readers who won’t look below the surface and see the “fable” of her stories. There is Nakijima, consumed by genius and deeply marked by not only the loss of his mother, but by trauma, real or imagined. And there is Chihiro, a seemingly shallow drifter in her goals and her personal life, yet able to find love and inspiration where others would not look. She even practices her art in a transitory place – buildings that will soon be destroyed – because she sees a lack of importance or permanence to modern life. It’s also conveying the moral that no matter how cold and callous the modern world is, we can always find places and things that make it worth living.

The Lake is a marvelously modern tale, and well worth the read. But there IS something in the water…

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I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.