While the novel is sweet and charming, it lacks the power and edge, and even the quirky oddness that makes Yoshimoto’s earlier work so intriguing. The ending too is a bit forced, leaving the reader unsatisfied. Despite the lack of depth, complexity or motion in this novel (and perhaps the stagnation, at least for Tsugumi, is part of the theme), the book is still an enjoyable and lighthearted read, with a delicate feel and subtle transformation, that will remind the reader of their own teenage years.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by Banana Yoshimoto
Translated by Michael Emmerich
Faber and Faber
(Dist in Australia by Penguin)
October 2002, Softcover
Banana Yoshimoto’s work has a quiet, quirky and decidedly youthful quality, which hasn’t diminished as she’s entered her late thirties. Most of her narrators are adolescent, on the cusp of something – some change or move into adulthood, and her latest novel, Goodbye Tsugumi is no exception. Maria Shirakawa, the first person narrator ofGoodbye Tsugumi, is around 19, just about to start university when the narrative begins. While waiting for her father’s long running divorce from his wife, Maria and her mother live at a seaside town with her spoiled, frail cousin, Tsugumi and Tsugumi’s sister and parents, who run an inn. The novel, which is very much character, rather than plot driven, builds on the relationship between Maria and Tsugumi, as well as delving into the relationships which Maria has with Tsugumi’s long suffering sister Yoko, and her own parents. The novel works as a brief interlude into the life of a person who is in chrysalis stage, who has yet to become herself, but who begins to discover, by virtue of contrast and observation rather than any particular event, that the future is bright for her and that there is much to be grateful for. Maria is so nice, as is her mother, her father, her cousin Yoko, Yoshimoto’s mother and the love interest Kyoichi – every character aside from Tsugumi is nice, but the more we begin to understand Tsugumi, the more we realise that her behavioural disfunction is part high spirit, and part reaction to her physical ailments.
While the novel is certainly readable, the characters, particularly Maria, interesting, and the setting attractive, there is also a lack of momentum, even of excitement, which leaves the reader wondering what exactly has happened in this novel. It may be that the translation doesn’t pick up the plot subtleties of the original Japanese, although Emmerich seems to have done quite well in his rendition of the landscape description, which is often beautiful:
The whiteness of the flowers seemed to levitate in the dark. Every time the crowd of petals bobbed under a puff of wind you were left with an afterimage of white that had the texture of a dream. And just beside that dream the reiver continued to flow, and off in the distance the dark nighttime ocean stretched the glow of the moon into a single gleaming road. The black waters before us swelled up and fell back again, glimmering with tiny flecks of light, the dark motion extending all the way to infinity.
Maria does change in the course of the narrative, and it is her realisation about the true character of her cousin, and the value and potential future of her own life which drives the narrative forward, but it seems a little thin and even dreamy at times to sustain a whole novel. Tsugumi’s language is also a little odd, with her use of “babe” and “moron,” which are again, possibly a function of the translation – the Japanese words might fit better with the character. In English they seem strained and unlikely, even in the context of Tsugumi’s mock toughness. However, the transition from Tsugumi the unpleasant, spoiled, beautiful and cruel woman with little obviously wrong with her, to vulnerable, lovesick and lonely young woman whose limited life appears truncated compared to Maria’s is poignant. Maria’s attempts to understand Tsugumi’s unusual personality, and Tsugumi’s attempts to live her delicate life to the fullest, despite the consequences, and to resist sentimentality are also reasonably powerful, even in the absence of a real plot. The subplots of Maria’s own mother’s sacrifices, first in terms of her lover and then in terms of her love of the sea also work neatly with Maria’s sacrifice of the sea and her impending launch into adulthood. Her goodbye to Tsugumi is not only the goodbye between cousins and friends, but a goodbye to childhood and innocence. Again, Yoshimoto handles this form of ‘coming of age’ characterisation very well, and manages to quietly extract the nuances of this theme by building on Maria’s observations, her interactions and her awakening knowledge of the world around her.
While the novel is sweet and charming, it lacks the power and edge, and even the quirky oddness that makes Yoshimoto’s earlier work so intriguing. The ending too is a bit forced, leaving the reader unsatisfied. Despite the lack of depth, complexity or motion in this novel (and perhaps the stagnation, at least for Tsugumi, is part of the theme), the book is still an enjoyable and lighthearted read, with a delicate feel and subtle transformation, that will remind the reader of their own teenage years. This would also be a suitable book for a young adult.
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