“I gradually came to see that though we’re given only one chance to live our lives, we’re at the mercy of something larger than the abilities and personalities we’re born with, something that is beyond our control.”- Minae Mizumura, A True Novel
I saw this book marketed as the Japanese “Wuthering Heights”, which initially put me off as I didn’t enjoy Wuthering Heights much. However, it came highly recommended and I’m so glad I gave it a go. It took me over half the book before I realized why it was marketed in the way it was, and even if you’re not a fan of Wuthering Heights I would still highly recommend it.
“A True Novel” starts off with a focus on the life and thoughts of Minae, a Japanese girl who moved to the States with her family due to her father’s work. I immediately felt drawn to her as person who also left the country she was raised in at a pivotal time in her development, and how she held on to her past even as her birth country was rapidly changing. Some of her feelings really resonated with me and she put into words so perfectly the emotions and feelings that come with the nostalgia Third Culture Kids feel, and also how they feel when they return “home”:
“As I had left Japan just as my childhood was ending, my memories of those years were locked away in a magic chest deep inside me. When I moved back to Japan and faced its day-to-day reality, my desperate longing for my home country quickly dissipated into thin air. But the locked chest remained. When, once in a while, some random happening pried the lid up, I would be overwhelmed by the bright jumble of things inside- by their aura sounds, and smells- qualities that only childhood memories possess.”
Mizumura shows expertly just how Japan changed. I’m always enthralled by literature that attempts to show us the changing mentalities and realities of a place over time. When one of the characters tells us about her childhood in a Japanese village, where there was no travel and there is the tedium of every day being pretty much the same, the daily meals being the same, the people being the same, it makes me think about how globally the world has changed and how there really is more variety and diversity.
Minae also has great cultural insight and I liked her observations of Japanese folk in the US, how they are seen by Americans and vice versa. These moments really caused me to recall the 6 or so years I worked for a Japanese company in Vancouver, a time when I was always meeting Japanese newcomers to Canada and got to know them well enough to find out their views about Canada, and to observe how they embraced western culture, or how they perceived western culture to be. The fairly awkward Christmas party that Minae attended in the book reminded me of the equally awkward first Christmas party my former employer hosted where my Japanese coworkers and students and my Canadian coworkers interacted in a social setting for the first time. What was great about these parties was eventually they became a great opportunity for cultural exchange as they became a fusion of both Japanese and Canadian culture, and as I prefer sushi to turkey I liked that shift. Reading Mizumura’s depiction of the Christmas party reminded me of how fortunate I was to witness what I did.
The focus throughout the book is on the mysterious Taro, who has so much uncertainty surrounding him, and who we only know through the narratives of others. Taro is used by the author to illustrate Japanese impressions of class, education, and being mixed race. Initially we don’t know much about him but when Minae, as an adult, meets Yusuke, a Japanese newcomer to the US, more of the puzzle of who Taro is is filled in through Yusuke’s telling of Taro’s story. Taro’s origin story fascinated me and helped me understand why he was the way he was. This is where the story really sucked me in:
“At long last Yusuke started to tell me his tale, beginning hesitantly but then going on as if unable to stop. I listened with the stillness of deep sleep. The present disappeared. The place where we were disappeared. Even Yusuke and I disappeared. With my sense of the solid reality around us dissolving, the yellowish glow from the small bulbs on the wells looked like will-o’-the-wisps, ghost fires. The wildness outside the little house now seemed distant, as if the power of nature couldn’t penetrate our world.”
There are glimpses to so many worlds in this book, including post war Japan, the lives of upper class Japanese, the life of the Japanese in America and so on. Despite all the complexities that are apparent in writing a novel that contains all these themes, including the fact that Mizumura manages to not only write a novel within a novel in this book, as well as add a chapter of literary criticism, it’s done so seamlessly. I am truly in awe. By far my favourite fiction read so far this year.
“The young man himself didn’t have much of Japan about him, though. One could usually tell, as there’d be an unspoiled air about the new arrival, like a package wrapped in the fresh crisp paper of Japanese department stores.”
All in all this book connected me to so many wonderful characters