A True Novel- Minae Mizumura

“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


Between Two Worlds- Miriam Tlali


I had thought I had seen everything there is to see, heard everything there is to hear, in my experience with people, black, white and brown, in this Republic of South Africa. But I was to realize that I had so far seen and heard very little of this beloved land of ours, especially as far as relationships between the different races are concerned. – Miriam Tlali, Between Two Worlds

I have no idea how I’d never heard of Miriam Tlali before I came across this book by chance at my local library. Tlali, I learned, passed away in 2017 and she had the honour of being the first black female South African novelist to be published.

Between Two Worlds is a story that illustrates apartheid in 1960s South Africa through the eyes of Muriel, a black bookkeeper who is overqualified for the position at the Metropolitan Radio, a retail store that sells radios, electrical appliances, and furniture in Soweto.  On a daily basis Muriel has to deal with petty racism, reminders from her white coworkers that they consider her to be less than human, and knowing she would be able to find better work had there not been an apartheid society.

Tlali’s writing gives us an important lens into various parts of South African society, such as race relations, the Land Act, and Pass Laws. It’s easy to have a basic idea of what apartheid was, what it was like for the people living under it, but without hearing stories from the actual people involved, it’s difficult to imagine how it permeated every area of people’s lives, and the many different ways it manifested. Apartheid without question was a gross injustice and learning more details through Tlali’s novel really had me very indignant at, for example,  how despite racist societies putting down a group of people and seeing them as subhuman, those in power still did their best to take advantage of these people and take them for every penny.

Tlali is so observant and often witty too, and it is so reassuring that she was able to see the hypocrisies she faced on a daily basis so clearly. Also, she never had any doubt as to what a brilliant black woman she was, although the society she lived in tried to say otherwise. She was aware of the ethical dilemma she faced being a black woman employed by white South Africans:

“How was I going to work with people who were not even prepared to give me a chance and who were squeezing as much money as they could out of my own black fellow workers?”

Another thing I liked about this book was it’s a snapshot of how communications were conducted in the 1960s. Before the internet, the main way to communicate was through letters, and it was dizzying to think about how many letters and follow-up letters had to be written before email came along.

These links share more about the life and activism of this incredible woman:



Ready to Burst- Franketienne



Will my cries for help manage to move anyone? To reach some sympathetic target? I don’t know. But unhappiness, misery, despair, rage, rivers, storms, blood, fire, seas, hurricanes, my country, trees, mountains, my people, women, children, old men, all men, all things, and all beings, swell in my voice, to the point where, should I fail, I’ll have been truly alone. Terrifyingly alone. Horribly alone.- Franketienne, Ready to Burst

This is one of my favourite fiction reads of the year. Every single one of the French-Caribbean writers I’ve come across have been brilliant, and Haitian writer Franketienne is no exception. If you’ve read and loved Edouard Glissant or Aime Cesaire, you’re sure to like Franketienne; he writes in the same energetic way as both, and in the same visceral way as Cesaire.

Ready to Burst introduces us to two young men who are trying to make sense of their very brutal society. The novel also introduces us to a new form of writing, spiralism,  which is also known as the  “Dialect of hurricanes. Patois of rains. Language of storms. I speak the unfolding of life in a spiral.”

And the current “unfolding of life” in Haiti is a stormy political situation. One of the characters in the novel is himself a writer and finds writing to be the only way he can get any peace:

In wanting so desperately to speak, I’ve become no more than a screaming mouth. I no longer worry about what I write. I simply write. Because I must. Because I’m suffocating, I write anything. Any way. People can call it what they want: novel, essay, poem, autobiography, testimony, narrative, memory exercise, or nothing at all. I don’t even know, myself. Yet what I write feels perfectly familiar to me. No one can say much more than what he has lived.

In a sense this novel is about writing a novel, and there were so many interesting passages about what a novel is, whether the novel is dead, what writer’s block is:

The novel is a vision of life. And as far as I know, life isn’t a segment. It isn’t a vector. Nor is it a simple curve. It’s a spiral in motion. It opens and closes in irregular helices. It becomes a question of surprising at the right moment a few rings of the spiral. So I’m constructing my novel in a spiral, with diverse situations traversed by the problematic of the human, and held in awkward positions. And the elastic turns of the spiral, embracing beings and things in its elliptical and circular fragments, defining the movements of life. This is what I’m using the neologism Spiralism to describe.

There are so many wonderful paragraphs in this very poetic,  very visceral book:

It is then that I become a tempest of words, bursting open the hypocrisy of clouds and the deceitfulness of silence. Rivers. Storms. Flashes of lightning. Mountains. Trees. Lights. Rains. Untamed oceans. Take me away in the frenzied marrow of your joints.

I’m not sure how I came across this book but I’m glad I did!

City of Lies- Ramita Navai


From above, Tehran has an ethereal glow. An orange mist hangs over the city, refracting sunrays: a thick, noxious haze that stubbornly clings to every corner, burning the nose and stinging the eyes. Every street is clogged with cars coughing out the black clouds that gently rise and sit, unmoving, overhead…- Ramita Navai, City of Lies

I’ve always been intrigued by Iranian history and this book was fascinating. It’s a collection of stories from various Tehranis, giving us lots of insight into Iranian society. These are the stories of Tehrani citizens, told to the reporter/writer, citizens including a prostitute, an assassin, an exile, and a closeted Islamic militia member.

What I’ll say is this: people who are obsessed with morals and laws are often the least moral (and the most abusive). Some of the stories in the book are heart-wrenching and so unfair. The hypocrisy of life within a very rigid religious society was so obvious from these stories, particularly the hypocrisy around sexuality.

I learned a lot of interesting tidbits about Iran; for example, I had no idea that in the 1970s lots of Iranians provided cheap labour to Japan, doing the ‘3K’ jobs ; kitanai (dirty), Kitsui (difficult), and kurushii (painful). Nor did I know about the chronic drug problem in the country.

Iran seems to be a place of contradictions, and a place where people, young women in particular, seem to be oppressed. Take Somayeh whose family believes that “religion means living by the words of the Koran and the Supreme Leader’s fatwas to earn a place in paradise”:

Somayeh and her friends strongly believed that the hejab should be enforced. They agreed with the law, which states that if your make-up and clothes are contrary to public decency and you intend to attract attention, you can be arrested and taken straight to court…The girls were not to blame for their misogynous views. They had been fed the regime’s line on hejab, which was usually touted around the city via huge billboard advertisements, since birth.


I’m always interested by how oppressive regimes use children to further their agendas, and how they program them to do so. For example:

Morteza’s own views were not changing so much as being formed for the first time. The lectures were having an effect. Islamic scholars thundered about the dangers of moral decay, titillating the boys with enough morsels of lascivious detail to keep them interested and entrusting them with enough responsibility to keep them excited. The boys were wide-eyed with pride when they were told tha they were the guardians of their citizens’ virtue.

I was incredibly frustrated by the limitations such regimes put on its people, the hypocrisy which unfortunately hurts the women and children the most, and how people have to often hide who they truly are. Navai did share some important stories though, and regardless of how oppressive the regime is, people do their best to live, and I’d say that’s pretty inspirational.

The book did remind me of Persepolis, the feminist graphic novel set in Iran, and it’s no wonder because the women in these stories were treated abysmally.

In Another Place, Not Here- Dionne Brand


“They thought that the time would come when they would live, they would get a chance to be what they saw, that was part of the hope that kept them. But ghostly, ghostly this hope, sucking their jaws into lemon seed, kiwi heart, skeletons of pawpaw, green banana stalk.”– Dionne Brand, In Another Place, Not Here

If a favourite poet writes a novel, I’m probably going to read it, especially when the poet is Dionne Brand. I’m writing this review very soon after reading  Brand’s non-fiction book, “A Map to the Door of No Return“, and I’m seeing her experiences and thoughts on immigration, identity, the diaspora, colonialism etc in that book, displayed in this book.  Prior to this I’d only read a few volumes of her poems; in prose form, she is just remarkable and this is a beautiful, intricate book. It did take me a while to get used to the language but once I got into the flow of things it was wonderful.

This book is set in Ontario, Canada and an unnamed Caribbean island (possibly Grenada?). The main stories are those of  Elizete and Verlia. Verlia immigrates to Canada as a teenager, becomes a member of the black power movement in 1970s Toronto, then goes back to her island to try to ignite a revolution there with the exploited sugarcane workers. She meets and becomes lovers with Elizete, who eventually moves to Canada herself. The women’s lives as  immigrants in Canada were very difficult and transformative. When Verlia moves to Sudbury, Ontario to live with her relatives, her observations of whiteness as a black immigrant to Canada were quite interesting. She witnesses and questions the assimilation approach of her aunt and uncle and how this is toxic and seems to result in their emotional death. As immigrants are we supposed to embrace whiteness? Verlia decided she didn’t want to:

“They are imaginary. They have come as far north as they could imagine. And they have imagined themselves into the white town’s imagining. They have come here to get away from Black people, to show white people that they are harmless, just like them. This lie will kill them. Swell her uncle’s heart. Wrought the iron in Aunt Idrisse’s voice.”

This book made me think, and at times it touched on personal thoughts or the many stories I’ve heard about from fellow-immigrants:  immigration isn’t easy. The tough life of a single, black female immigrant in 1970s Canada must have been even tougher. Brand is honest with her portrayal of Canada, and how others often perceive it in a way that sugarcoats very real issues:

“Except that everyone is from someplace else but this city does not give them a chance to say this; it pushes their confusion underground, it wraps them in the same skin and slides them to the side like so much meat wrapped in brown paper.” 

In this Brexit era  when so many immigrants hear the phrase, “Go back home”, it’s a good time to understand why certain immigration patterns even happened. Often people rarely take into account history and how damaging and pervasive the ills of the Empire have been. There’s a realization by so many of us that there is no place where we can be truly free because of history and neocolonialism.

I appreciated this book for  highlighting the  traumatic experiences of immigration. There were several passages that were heartbreaking because they spoke to loneliness, depression, confusion, waiting…:

“She was working edges. If she could straighten out the seam she’d curled herself into, iron it out like a wrinkle, sprinkle some water on it and then iron it out, careful, careful not to burn…”

 “She has too much to tell. That’s the answer, too much she holds and no place to put it down that would be safe.”

“She was trying to collect herself again, bring her mind back from wherever the pieces had gone skittering. She had deserted herself she knew, given up a continent of voices she knew then for fragmented ones.”

This is definitely a book I think will appeal to many. It’s beautifully-written, very thoughtful, and gives a voice to Caribbean immigrant women in the big city in Canada.





Beauty is a Wound- Eka Kurniawan



“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.”- Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound

This book has one of the best, most memorable opening sentences I’ve ever read. And it definitely set the stage for one of the most compelling and engrossing stories I’ve read in a long time. Over 500 pages of prose and I enjoyed every page. Even without having any knowledge of the history of Indonesia, I loved it.

Indonesia seems to have had a turbulent history of colonization, first by the Dutch, then the Japanese. I find the same theme in a lot of novels that focus on colonized subjects who become involved in proxy wars:  confusion over what exactly is happening:

“Look,” she said to another woman next to her, “they must be confused by two foreign nations making war on their land.”

I’m always a fan of anyone who writes compelling, multi-dimensional women. This book traces the history of  Indonesian-Dutch prostitute Dewi Ayu and her four daughters and their characters are written so well. It’s a complicated family history, complicated even further by wars, colonialism, communism, independence struggles, and love. In addition, fairy tales and legends are mixed in to this funny yet tragic story.


I like stories that focus on small communities like this. Imagine being part of a community that you were born and raised in, one where everyone knows you and makes room for you because they know they have no choice but to put up with you since migration isn’t a common practice. Something Elizabeth Alexander wrote in her “The Light of the World” has always stuck with me, something regarding African societies (told to her by her late husband) about how the village always makes room for everyone, including the mentally ill, and I saw that in this book; people adapting to each other.

Kurniawan is a great writer, really exceptional. I enjoyed the way he presented Indonesia’s history in a fictionalized account, making it accessible, as well as interesting and educational.. I had no idea, for example, that Indonesia had a history with communism:

“Comrade Salim admitted that he was not a good Marxist, that he didn’t understand all that class theory yet, but he was fairly certain that injustice had to be fought in any way possible. There are no Marxists in this country, he said, but there are plenty of starving masses, who work more than what they get for it in return, who have to bend their knees every time a big man appears, who know nothing expect that the only way to be free from all of that is to rebel.”

I already touched upon the compelling female characters in this book. Cynthia Enloe wrote a bit about brothels in Asia during World War 2 and the Vietnam war and it was something I’d never really thought about before but it was interesting to see that although war is often in the masculine domain , there is a lot about the involvement of women that isn’t considered or that is glossed over. We know women and children are always the biggest victims in war and this book at least lends some warmth and a richer narrative to the stories that aren’t often mentioned, those that are seen as peripheral to the war. This line, “The colonel came to believe that the brothel built up his men’s morale and was good for their fighting spirit…”,  reminds us of how women are used in times of war.


Indonesia as a locale for this story was interesting: the dichotomies of native Indonesian vs. Dutch, interspersed with some magical realism, myths, humour and wit, bawdiness, as well as great insights, made the story really come alive. Also, to me the history seemed to be very much like that of many countries where the needs of the people are quite basic, yet are still out of reach due to bad governance:

“Long ago he had heard an imam in the mosque talk about heaven, about rivers of milk that flowed at your feet, about beautiful ever-available virgins, nymphs, about everything being there for the taking and nothing forbidden. All of that seemed so beautiful, really too beautiful to be believed. He didn’t need anything as grandiose as all that–it would be enough for him if everyone got the same amount of rice. Or maybe that wish was really the most grandiose wish of all.”

Prepare to be shocked, outraged, and delighted.

The Woman Who Read Too Much- Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

“If one were to believe her highness, the whole country was on the verge of revolution, with women deploying an artillery of inflammatory prose, wielding books like bucklers, and taking up pens as if they were swords.” Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, The Woman Who Read Too Much

Most of my favourite fiction books have a strong feminist element. This is the kind of book I adore; stories of women refusing to accept traditional or patriarchal values and vowing to live the lives they wish to lead regardless of society. This account is of a woman in Iranian history, a woman who “read too much.” The title reminded me of the Stefan Bollman book, “Women Who Read Are Dangerous/ Les Femmes Qui Lisent Sont Dangereuses.” The woman who read too much was the poetess from Qazvin, Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, who challenged the status quo so spectacularly, so much so that it made her seem dangerous to those in power, and she was eventually put on trial for heresy.

In this book reading too much was just reading, plain and simple. This is Iran in the 19th Century, and religion as well as patriarchy hid the roles and voices of women in historical events. This book presents voices of other women who were somehow involved in the poetess’ trial for heresy:

“But by the time she was arrested in the first winter of the young Shah’s reign, both her admirers and detractors were forced to agree that none of the traditional names of womankind could sum her up. She was admitted to be the calamity of the age.”

You can’t help but be reminded of how women have often been the scapegoats in history. In this time period, the Shah’s regime was experiencing famine, public executions, tortures, and treason trials. But a woman who reads and teaches other women to read will be the talk of the town instead of some of the more heinous events taking place.

In the end, reading meant more than just reading words in books; it also meant reading people, situations, and circumstances. And the more I learn about literacy being denied to certain groups over time, the more amazing it is for me to see how some people are so determined to share this gift because they know it’s a gift and can be so freeing. Literacy is seen as dangerous in the hands of the wrong people, as it always has been, but the people who withhold this knowledge are the ones who are dangerous to me:

“The prisoner in the Mayor’s house was teaching women how to read and write far more than poetry. She was showing them how to inscribe their lives on the pages of history, how to decipher motives, inscribe actions, interpret the world. She was giving them the tools by which to be autonomous.”

“They listened as she told them how languages and marriages were bridges, merely, between man and woman, tongue and ear; how they were the means by which to build, in which to house, on which to raise new meanings between human beings. When a marriage was faithful, it gave birth to poetry, she concluded. If not, it was a dead letter overnight.”

This is my second book by the author and she paints such a wonderful story of one woman who made a difference and left a lasting legacy that might not have been so obvious at the time. Highly recommended!

“If there were daughters, sisters, wives in these pages, it’s only because we cannot be read whole. We come to the last chapter split in parts, Beloved; we come scattered in fragments, torn. There is no such thing as a complete woman in this world.”

The Natural Order of Things- António Lobo Antunes

“A labyrinth, my friend, a veritable labyrinth, just think of all the surprises in a labyrinth, there were even tree roots in the tunnels, trees are even worse than teeth, which reach through our gums to our ears and neck, as we all know, but we look at a tree and never dream how far it goes in search of the deceased and the world’s silence that sprouts as fruit on its branches.”– António Lobo Antunes, The Natural Order of Things

“Labyrinth” is the perfect word to describe this book’s structure and storyline.  Antunes is an amazing writer and I’ve already made a vow to read more of his books. He’s not an easy read; he definitely requires your full attention but it’s so worth it.

I’m always excited to come across a writer who writes in a style that I’m not familiar with, and this book fit the bill. It has a dreamlike quality and it’s a story that reveals itself over time. It was definitely reminiscent of Proust due to its stream of consciousness style, and also its focus is on memory. Structurally, this book is very different; its very long sentences are further complicated by surrealism and sentences being divided up, the first half of the sentence being the thoughts of one person in one time and place, and the second one by another in another time and place, and you get an idea of how tricky this book might be to read.

The book’s focus is also on history: personal history and world history, communism in Portugal, mining in South Africa, things happening in the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola. There’s a lot of travelling back and forth between time and place,  and it’s very clear that for many, their past and present are intertwined:

“There are those who fly in the air and those who fly under the earth, although they’re not yet dead, and I, daughter, belong to the latter group, having flown at a depth of a thousand feet with a lamp on my forehead, surrounded by blacks, in the tunnels of the Johannesburg mines…”

I do wish I had some Portuguese history knowledge, at least as much as I do of Portuguese influence in Southern Africa. What I did pick up on was the discussion on colonialism, communism, war, migration, and how people in general are often pawns and never really were appreciated for their sacrifices:

“Look around and all you see is indifference and selfishness, the way people have treated me, for instance, assaulting me on the street, insulting me, calling me a murderer and a scoundrel, spitting in my face, kicking me out wherever I go, leaving me homeless, penniless, friendless…”

Beautiful writing and imagery throughout, interesting and unique characters, very melancholy too. Ironically, in this book “The natural order of things” doesn’t exist. Highly recommended!

Datura (Or a Delusion We All See) – Leena Krohn

“In the dark recesses of my chest, alveoli perish one by one. How many are there? How many do I need to be able to live and breathe? How little I know of the ceaseless workings of my insides—a space where thrombocytes float to the beat of my still-hot heart.”- Leena Krohn, Datura (Or a Delusion We All See)

I picked up this book because of the Tori Amos song and for not the first time I’m really pleased with one of my impulse reads. I can definitely say I was hooked from the first page.

This was an interesting about an asthmatic woman working for “The New Anomalist”, a magazine focusing on the esoteric and weird. Her job is to look for strange stories in her city, and it leads her to encounter the strangest people:

“Sometimes we got messages from “Otherkin,” people who didn’t think they were humans, but other forms of life.”

To add to the strangeness in her work life, she is given a datura plant for her birthday and starts experimenting with the seeds. Over the course of the story we have a case of an unreliable narrator who is possibly hallucinating, but we also an interesting look at reality.

“Datura” revolves around flowers and plants, and also the Voynich manuscript, a currently untranslated manuscript, which adds even more mystery to this book:

“The Voynich manuscript is an odd book, but then again, all books are odd…Many times I’ve found myself thinking of writing in general, books, their meaning, the way in which they exist. I ask myself what writing actually is. How the personal changes into the public, and why it must be so.”

There was so much  beautiful language in this book, I can only imagine how beautiful it must read in Finnish:

“There are moments when everything is new, as if seen or heard for the first time, even language, words that I’ve read a thousand times. People, landscapes, items, even books. Now and then I stop at a familiar word as I read, and all of a sudden it amazes me, and I savour it like a new taste. For a fraction of a second I hesitate: what does the word refer to, does it really signify anything at all?”

Additionally, there was the interesting discussion of plants, in particular the ever-present datura:

“I hope you understand that plants, too, are conscious. The consciousness of plants resembles human dreaming. That, too, is consciousness.”

The previous line interested me because in the book Braiding Sweetgrass,  the author explained how in Native American culture, it is widely known that plants do communicate and have consciousness. It seems to be a case of Western science (finally) catching up with indigenous knowledge.

“We don’t actually know what plants really are. We think they are passive, weak, harmless. What a delusion! The earth holds no greater power than the energy of the plant kingdom. Mankind’s clumsy dabbling on the earth cannot compare to such creativity.”

I would definitely recommend this book. Not only is it a quick read, it’s a very interesting one too.

Masks- Fumiko Enchi

“The secrets inside her mind are like flowers in a garden at nighttime, filling the darkness with perfume.”– Fumiko Enchi, Masks

This is my first book by a female Japanese author. The ones that come after Enchi will have a lot to live up to. The book started off slowly but it soon held my interest and was quite surprising in some ways despite its subtle tone.

I don’t know much about Noh plays but it was clear that the use of masks was a metaphor for hiding one’s true self. In this case, the secrecy is evident in the bizarre relationship between the widowed Yasuko, and Mieko, her 50-something year old mother-in-law, who seems to be manipulating Yasuko, plus the two men who are in love with her. We spend the entire novel trying to get to know more about Mieko:

“She has a peculiar power to move events in whatever direction she pleases, while she stays motionless. She’s like a quiet mountain lake whose waters are rushing beneath the surface toward a waterfall. She’s like the face of a No mask, wrapped in her own secrets.”

This book is shrouded in mystery which is made even more fascinating by discussion of spiritualism, and the love triangle between Yasuko and her two suitors. There is curiosity about whether Mieko is controlling Yasuko’s spirit, this fact even questioned by Yasuko herself:

“Not I, Mother. It’s you who like him—somehow, time and again, your feelings seem to take hold of me. This is not just some crazy excuse; so many times I’ve found myself doing things that don’t make a bit of sense—and every time, without fail, I feel you there in the background, manipulating me like a puppet.”

I enjoyed the literary critique of a section of “The Tale of the Genji”, which I’ve never read before, regarding female shamanism. I think the book can in part be seen as an analysis of the Japanese woman, both in more modern times and in the olden days. I’m not sure if much has changed, at least according to Enchi; women are seen as manipulative, jealous etc. At the same time, I think Enchi allowed us to see how multi-faceted her female characters were, which is something I always appreciate in literature. Not only are women multi-faceted, apparently they are sort of enigmas too, unknowable to the male characters:

“Children—think what endless trouble men have gone to over the ages to persuade themselves that the children their women bore belonged to them! Making adultery a crime, inventing chastity belts…but in the end they were unable to penetrate even one of women’s secrets.”

In the end all these ingredients leave us with is a story that is so compelling, interesting and shocking. I’m also left with the desire to read “The Tale of the Genji.” I’m sure with that book under my belt, and more knowledge of Noh plays, I’ll rate this book higher.