Banana Yoshimoto, Amrita (Jap. 1994, English 1997)
This is such a pity that I couldn’t really enter this book and that I had to skim through half of it. It started well, with an endearing main character, Sakumi, a young woman from Tokyo with a fresh and friendly voice. She comes from a bit of an oddball family (by Japanese standards): the mother has married and divorced, and has welcomed into her home several female relatives. Sakumi’s sister has recently committed suicide after being depressed for a long time, but Sakumi’s grief is rather subdued. She is more worried by her young brother who shows signs of eccentricity and threatens to drop out of school. Sakumi herself has a close call with death after a bad accident that leaves her with huge memory loss. She recovers but is changed forever, more attuned to senses, dreams and visions.
I could follow Sakumi for a good third of the book, even as the novel veers from the psychological to the supernatural. I could do with the telepathic brother, and with Sakumi and him witnessing a UFO near Tokyo. I’m not crazy about magic realism, but the brother – sister relationship was endearing enough to stretch myself to this point. But after a while, I couldn’t see where all this was leading. I draw the line at the crowd of spirits in the Pacific island of Saipan, and dead soldiers of WWII in said Saipan Island reincarnated in sea cucumbers. No to sea cucumbers! I can eat them if I have to (it’s tasteless, by the way), but I can’t accept reincarnation into these flabby, slightly disgusting creatures. Yuck.
More seriously, it’s the lack of plot that annoyed me. In a disarming foreword, Banana Yoshimoto nearly confesses this weakness herself: “Now as I read over this novel I realise how naïve it is … The theme of this book is simple. I want to express the idea that regardless of all the amazing events that happen to each of us, there will always be the never-ending cycle of daily life.” It’s okay to have a naïve narrator, or to offer a portray of daily life, but the hodgepodge with supernatural doesn’t work that well. I prefer keeping his mind Yoshimoto’s very nice collection of short stories, Lizard, where daily life and the uncanny mix a lot better.