My current read is The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
My first completion was Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami. The blurb says:
On a sweltering summer’s day in a poor suburb of Tokyo we meet three women: thirty-year-old Natsuko, her older sister Makiko, and Makiko’s teenage daughter Midoriko. Makiko, an ageing hostess despairing over the loss of her good looks, has travelled to the city in search of the breast-enhancement surgery she thinks will change her life. Accompanying her is Midoriko, who has recently stopped speaking. In Natsuko’s rundown apartment the three women slowly confront their individual anxieties as well as their relationships under the weight of Midoriko’s punishing silence.
Eight years later, we are reunited with Natsuko. She is now a writer and finds herself on a journey back to her native city, returning to memories of that summer and her family’s past as she faces her own uncertain future.
I found this a very readable novel, although it’s almost two books between one set of covers. Both have Natsuko as their first person narrator. In Book One, her older sister and her niece visit her. It is apparent that Makiko (her sister) has become obsessed with the idea of breast enhancement surgery, a concept that her teenage daughter is struggling to comprehend as she fights her own battles with the changes happening in her body. Book Two takes place eight years later but here the sister and niece slip into the background and the plot centres on Natsuko’s issues of asexuality and her desire to have a child.
One thing that struck me about this novel is the way it highlights just how much our bodies – as they first mature into adulthood and then age – impact on our life and our identities. It is almost a constant battle with time: the biological clock, the impact of an ageing body on our status in society, the dissatisfaction with the way we look. The novel also raises the issues surrounding fertility treatment, in particular whether having a child is a right, to what extent is it it a selfish act, and the impact on a person of not knowing who their biological father is. Different characters express their varying opinions on these ethical issues, although I did feel that this was at times too self-consciously and conspicuously executed rather than being woven into the text in a more subtle manner. The main character is also a blocked novelist, and this struggle with creating her work mirrors her struggle to create a child.
The novel is very much about women and the impact of growing up in poverty. Fathers tend to be either abusive or absent and there is a general dissatisfaction with men and the questioning of to what extent they enhance a woman’s life. At times, this left me feeling quite uncomfortable by the lack of balance in this argument, but I guess Kawakami was emphasising a point.
Overall, this was a very interesting and thought-provoking read and provided ample material to discuss at the Japanese Literature book club; in fact, there was so much that we didn’t get round to talking about. I hadn’t finished the novel when I attended the book club but a number of people expressed dissatisfaction with the ending. Although I then expected to be disappointed with it, I thought it was quite satisfying, despite not taking the route I had anticipated.
Another novel I finally finished was Blindness by José Saramago. From the blurb:
No food, no water, no government, no hierarchy, no obligation, no order. This is not anarchy, this is blindness.
A driver waiting at the traffic lights goes blind. An ophthalmologist tries to diagnose his distinctive white blindness, but is affected before he can read the textbooks. It becomes a contagion, spreading through the unnamed city. Trying to stem the epidemic, the authorities herd the blind into a mental asylum. The wards are terrorised by blind thugs. And when fire destroys the asylum, the inmates burst forth and the last links with a supposedly civilised society are snapped.
This was the August read for the No Book No Life book club, which unfortunately I couldn’t attend as it would have been great to hear other people’s opinions of it.
It’s a unique novel: intriguing and disturbing, but also promising hope. Written around 1995, it is incredibly relevant to today’s world with observations such as: …some theatres, the larger ones, had been used to keep the blind in quarantine when the Government, or the few survivors, still believed that the white sickness could be remedied with devices and certain strategies that had been so ineffectual in the past against yellow fever and other infectious plagues… (p228)
I think our current situation caused me to read the novel quite literally whereas I would imagine the author intended the blindness to be a metaphor for a moral blindness or a blindness to what is truly happening around us. We go through life with our eyes closed and it takes extreme circumstances to open them.
The novel centres around a collection of unnamed characters, who find themselves imprisoned in an asylum as a result of contracting ‘blindness’: the doctor, the doctor’s wife (the only character who retains her sight), the girl with dark glasses, the old man with a black patch over one eye, the first blind man, the wife of the first blind man, the boy with the squint, and the dog of tears. The question here is when we cannot be seen, do we lose our identity?
Life in the asylum quickly degenerates in a way that societies seem to – this brought to mind novels such as Lord of the Flies. It made me consider how much we take for granted, not least of all our sight, but also electricity, water, food, our homes, and all the basics of everyday life that are so essential for our existence. When everybody is blind, society ceases to function.
This is a very unusual novel, not only in subject matter but also in structure. Dialogue is not started on a new line but runs on within long paragraphs, separated by commas, so at times it is difficult to keep track of who is talking. This probably imitates the disorientation created by blindness. It’s a thought-provoking exploration of what happens when society as we know it crumbles into disorder. I enjoyed it.
I finally completed Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse. The blurb states:
‘Black Rain’ is centred around the story of a young woman who was caught in the radioactive “black rain” that fell after the bombing of Hiroshima…The life of Yasuko, on whom the black rain fell is changed forever by periodic bouts of radiation sickness and the suspicion that her future children, too, may be affected.
Whilst I was of course aware that the bombing or Hiroshima took place, I had never read anything about its aftermath and the effect on the people. From this point of view, the novel was interesting, albeit harrowing, and is a well-written story that needed to be told.
However, I did have major problem with it: it doesn’t quite read like a novel and yet it wasn’t written as a work of non-fiction. It falls uncomfortably between the two, as though Masuji Ibuse couldn’t quite decide exactly on the kind of book he wanted to write. I was expecting a novel: it clearly states ‘a novel’ on the cover, and yet I had to keep checking and reminding myself as at many times I felt as though I were reading eyewitness testimony accounts of this shocking event. Also, the it doesn’t, in my opinion, focus on the life of Yasuko as claimed.
However, I then find myself questioning whether this approach was intentional – the destabilisation of genres mirroring the destabilisation of the people, and raising the question of how you fictionalise a real-life event of such horrific and devastating impact.
I think my choice will be Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat, which forms part of my exploration into magical realism.
My quotation this week comes from Breasts and Eggs, and is a response to the question of why people get drunk:
You’re always yourself, right? From the second you’re born, you’re you. Sometimes people get sick of that. I guess that’s why…Life is tough, but you gotta keep living until you die, you know what I mean? Sometimes you just need to escape from your own life…I guess that maybe people need to escape from themselves…Or from all the stuff they carry around – the past, memories, all that. For some people, though, that kind of escape isn’t enough. They never want to come back to themselves, so they decide not to live anymore.