Tokyo, by Nicholas Hogg, is a story of loss and of the anchors that are grasped when a life is cast adrift. The writing demanded pauses for appreciation. It was a pleasure to read.
Social psychologist Ben Monroe studies group behaviour: the power of community, an individual’s desire to fit in, the benefits and drawbacks of crowd co-operation, and cults. Through his interest in the latter he meets his wife, Lydia. She is a strong willed woman who dismisses her husband when their toddler daughter, Mazzy, nearly drowns whilst in his care. However much Lydia may blame Ben for his momentary lapse it is nothing compared to the blame he heaps on himself.
Rejected by Lydia, Ben leaves her and Mazzy in California, traveling first to England and from there on to Japan. Whilst exploring this teeming yet fragile country he meets a beautiful young woman, Kozue, with whom he has a brief affair. Conflating good sex with love he struggles to forget her when he returns to England:
“this woman could bring me back to life”
Ben writes a book which will make his academic name and is subsequently offered the chance to return to Tokyo as a visiting professor. He persuades Lydia that Mazzy, now aged fifteen, would benefit by joining him there for six months. On her flight out she meets a young Japanese man, Koji. They speak only briefly but, unbeknownst to Mazzy, Koji becomes obsessed with her. It is not his first obsession.
Ben struggles to see his daughter as the beautiful young woman she is becoming. In trying to deal with his superficial perception he misses that underneath she still needs care. He takes to leaving her to pursue his will-o’-the-wisp of Kozue, a distraction that, once again, puts Mazzy in danger.
The style in which this book is written reminds me of Japanese authors I have read with its slightly surreal plot development and imagery. Characters are introduced but remain opaque. The reader is offered only glimpses of their depth, shadows emerging briefly as from behind the paper screen doors of the houses in which they live. Suggestion is powerful and no more is needed.
Japan is brought to life. I loved the observations on the irrelevance of so much that is valued by man:
“The earth moved […] oblivious to the act played out upon its surface”
When Ben visits the Fukushima exclusion zone he observes:
“In a shopping arcade grass shoots up from the steps of an escalator. How quickly the earth reclaims its space from our feeble endeavours.”
From “the safest country in the world”, despite the earthquakes, tsunamis and radiation, the descriptions of Japan darken as the tale progresses. The historical sex trade, where the geishas have morphed into hostesses, is explored alongside the attendant drugs and extortion. As the tension builds this distasteful side of Tokyo is offered up in contrast to the previously lauded order and honesty.
The plot of this story is compelling but it is the psyches of the protagonists that drew me in. The author captures the weaknesses of the middle aged man, the truculent teenager, and the let down wife with brutal honesty. He also takes the reader inside Japan, a country that I have never visited but, having read this book, feel I now know just that little bit better.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cargo.