Book Review: Lonely Castle in the Mirror

Lonely Castle in the Mirror, by Mizuki Tsujimura (translated by Philip Gabriel), was a number one bestseller in Japan where it won two highly influential literary prizes. The publisher explains that, according to a recent UNICEF report,

“While Japanese children ranked first in physical health and often lived in relatively well-off economic circumstances, instances of bullying in schools, as well as difficult relationships with family members, lead to a lack of psychological well-being.”

The success of this story may well be testament to how it resonated with so many readers.

The story is mostly told from the point of view of Kokoro Anzai, a 7th Grade student (age 12/13) living in Tokyo who stopped attending her Junior High School after just a few weeks. This followed a run of upsetting incidents involving her new classmates. It opens in May, the second month in the Japanese academic year. Kokoro wakes up each morning suffering from severe stomach aches and apprehensively tells her mother that, once again, she cannot attend school. Kokoro is an only child and both her parents go out to work. She spends her days cooped up in her bedroom, often keeping the curtains closed and sleeping or watching soaps on TV. She does not wish this to continue but, unable to find the words to explain what happened and how it made her feel, can think of no way to return to a place that triggers her debilitating anxieties.

It is on one such closed in day that the full length mirror in Kokoro’s bedroom starts to glow with a bright light. When she gets up to investigate she discovers it has become a portal to a large castle. Here she meets six other children and the enigmatic Wolf-Queen. The latter – a masked and child-like figure – explains that the group have been brought together to partake in a quest. Until the following March they may come and go as they please by day – so long as they do so alone and vacate the castle by 5pm. Their quest is to find a hidden key by solving clues, some of which she has already given them. If they succeed then the finder will have one wish granted, after which the castle will be inaccessible to all of them.

The children are unsure of the cryptic nature of what the Wolf-Queen reveals. However, the castle becomes their refuge from the upsetting reality of the home lives they are each currently leading. The children are all of an age when they should be attending Junior High School. For a variety of reasons they have not fitted in and lead lonely existences. Within the confines of the castle they are accepted, albeit guardedly. Their experiences have rendered them painfully self-conscious and lacking wider emotional literacy.

The story of these seven misfits is told over the course of the remaining academic year. It employs the language of young people and is distinctively Japanese in its sometimes abrupt and detached expression. Some of the phrasing felt a little off at times but this came to be explained. Until close to the end the reader may be confused about certain elements of continuity.

The children are struggling to navigate a world driven by the cool kids and the teachers who favour them. Kokoro has loving parents who wish to support her but cannot break through the generational language barrier. It is only in the castle that she feels she belongs, despite her occasional missteps. As March approaches, the idea of losing this refuge – and the friends she has made there – must also be managed.

At times the curious directions the tale took made me question what I was reading and whether to continue. Oddities grated and I pondered if I was enjoying the often static and opaque developments. Throughout, however, the story remained strangely compelling. The author has captured the voices of distressed and anxious young people. Their often fraught interactions remain plausible and poignant, even when they behave badly towards each other.

The denouement pulls each thread together with the Wolf-Queen’s role and her clues explained. Dark undertones have the classic fairy tale feel for a reason. Magical elements and use of metaphor may not be for everyone but provide a thought-provoking conclusion, albeit a curious one.

An unusual bildungsroman that powerfully evokes the damage caused by school bullying, familial trauma and abuse. In portraying the impact through interaction rather than lengthy exposition, reader empathy overrides inevitable judgement.

Did I enjoy the book? Not entirely while reading, as indicated above. It is, however, growing on me as I consider it further. A worthwhile read I will be pondering for some time to come.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), tells the story of Keiko Furukura, a thirty-six year old single woman who has worked in the same small store in Tokyo since her university days. Keiko is content with her situation but her family and friends are unable to accept this. They do not understand why Keiko cannot conform to society’s expectations. She should be seeking a more acceptable career, finding herself a husband, perhaps having children. She is not regarded as normal, and it is they who need her to be.

Even as a child Keiko was considered strange. When other youngsters were upset at finding a dead bird, she suggested it could be eaten. When boys at school started fighting and others begged someone to stop them, Keiko fetched a spade and hit the miscreants over the head. Not understanding why she was then reprimanded, Keiko withdrew into herself and started observing other’s behaviour that she may copy how they went about their days. She would turn to her sister for advice when situations arose that she would have to deal with alone. Her family loved her but longed to find a cure for actions they regarded as inexplicable.

Keiko’s job at the convenience store suits her perfectly. There is a company manual that clearly sets out employee’s desired presentation, customer interaction and how tasks are to be completed. For other behaviours she has co-workers to emulate. Once in uniform she believes they are all cogs in a smooth running machine. She takes pride in her contribution and the role she plays.

A new recruit, Shiraha, threatens the stability Keiko has enjoyed for eighteen years. He enters her life when others have been giving her a hard time over her lack of boyfriend and low status employment. At a barbeque a friend’s husband takes issue with her marital status leading to offers to help fix this.

“It was the first time I’d ever met him, and here he was leaning forward and frowning at me as if questioning my very existence.”

Keiko reveals Shiraha’s existence to her sister and is shocked by the reaction.

“She’d never been this chatty with me before. Seeing how excited she was, it occurred to me that it wasn’t such a stretch to say that contemporary society was still stuck in the Stone Age after all. So the manual for life already existed. It was just that it was already ingrained in everyone’s heads, and there wasn’t any need to put it in writing. […] If it had been that simple all along, I thought, I wish she’d given me clear instructions before, then I wouldn’t have had to go to such lengths to find out how to be normal.”

Even worse is the change in her co-workers’ when they believe Keiko is in a relationship.

“I’d thought the rest of the staff were made up of the same cells as me, but in the current strange atmosphere a village mentality was taking over and they were fast reverting to ordinary males and females. Now only the customers still allowed me to be just a convenience store worker.”

Shiraha is portrayed as a man to be avoided, yet to others he is still better than no man.

Told from Keiko’s point of view the style of the narrative suits the character’s literal, practical and unemotional outlook. There are wryly humorous interactions and observations as Keiko is taken to task over personal choices, despite them affecting no one but herself.

An indictment of societal expectations presented in an entertaining format. This is an enjoyable, concise if somewhat quirky read.

Convenience Store Woman is published by Granta.

My copy of this book was purchased at Foyles in Bristol. 

Book Review: Tokyo

TOKYO_FINAL_ARTWORK_1602 for print

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.