‘Asleep’ by Banana Yoshimoto

Asleep

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 177 pages; 2001. Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich.

Following on from Jonathan Coe’s House of Sleep, here’s another book focused on slumber.

As someone who is rather fond of sleeping — yes, I’d happily laze in bed 24/7 if I could — I was intrigued by this book by Japanese writer Banana Yoshimoto. First published in 1992 as Shirakawa Yofune, it comprises three shorts stories focusing on the common themes of love, loss, loneliness — and sleep.

In the first tale, Night and Night’s Travelers, a 22-year-old woman remembers her charismatic older brother, now dead, and the affair he once had with their first cousin, Mari, who is now prone to sleep walking.

In Love Songs, another young woman, once caught up in a love triangle with “a boisterous sort of guy, something of a thug”  and a nasty woman called Haru, starts hearing strange music whenever she is on the brink of falling asleep. When her new boyfriend suggests it is the ghost of the dead trying to communicate with her, she goes on a bizarre quest to find out who it might be.

In Asleep, the final and longest story in the collection, an unemployed woman sleeps her days away as she struggles to come to terms with the death of a close female friend. But she hides this news from her boyfriend, a man whose wife is in a coma, for reasons she can’t quite explain.

Languid, dream-like prose

All the stories are told in appropriately languid prose — there’s something mysterious and hypnotic about the writing which mirrors the subject matter — and there’s a very real sense of atmosphere and fleeting sadness.

There are common themes throughout. All three of the lead characters are young women coming to terms with events that have changed them: one is grieving for her brother, another is grieving for a friend and the third is trying to come to terms with a sordid love affair she wishes she had not conducted. In all cases, the women have lost their innocence and are now stuck in a kind of spiritual stupor — represented by sleep walking, dreaming and sleeping — and are waiting for something to truly wake them up so that they can be born anew.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the stories are set in winter — Yoshimoto writes some truly elegant and beautiful descriptions of the snow — a time when nature slumbers, animals hibernate and death lies in wait.

I loved reading this collection. There’s a soothing, yet eerie quality to the writing, and the characters, all wonderfully naive, are gentle, compassionate and emotionally fragile without being weak. Each tale is imbued with nostalgia — for things lost that can no longer be found — and exquisite sadness. And if I was to sum up this slim volume in just a few words I would say this: haunting, elegant and tragic.

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15 thoughts on “‘Asleep’ by Banana Yoshimoto

  1. Not my favourite Yoshimoto this one. I felt the second story was very weak, and (as I said in my review at the time) a week later, I couldn’t really remember much about it at all…
    I loved ‘Amrita’, and ‘Kitchen’ was interesting too, so I’m hoping that ‘The Lake’ is up to that standard 🙂

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  2. I agree that the second story is the weakest out of the three, but I think the first and third make up for that. Am intrigued by Kitchen, but don’t really know anything about Amrita. I see The Lake has received some mixed reviews, but will wait for paperback release, I think, before reading it…

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  3. I’ve just finished Kitchen by this writer, but I hadn’t heard of Asleep before. There seem to be similar themes: death and how people deal with the loss of a loved one, grieving. Still, Kitchen wasn’t depressing, but another book with similar themes? I think maybe I’ll wait a bit. 🙂
    Have you read Kitchen?

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  4. A new writer for me. I admire Jonathan Coe for his House of Sleep but I can’t think of any other books which focus on the topic of slumber. As you only gave it four stars I won’t bother further investigations of this one!
    Thanks for visiting my site over the year and leaving comments – all much appreciated.

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  5. I’m reading The lake now … and did read Kitchen many many years ago, which I enjoyed and always meant to follow up with another one of hers. I like her style – particularly her atmosphere and tone. Loneliness and a sense of alienation seems to be a common theme of hers.

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  6. I’ve decided that I really like Japanese fiction. I’ve only read a few, but they seem to all be written in a similar detached style and focus on loneliness and alienation. I’m not sure what that says about Japanese society, though.

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  7. What? Does that mean you only bother reading books that get five stars? You are a hard task-master, Tom!
    Thanks for visiting and commenting on my site, too. Makes blogging so much more enjoyable when you see that people have appreciated your efforts.

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  8. I’m wondering if loneliness and a sense of alienation are common themes in all Japanese fiction? I’ve not read that much, but what I have read seems to be similar in that regard.

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  9. I love all of Yoshimoto’s books but I did not own any. Maybe I should. You know how it is with short stories when you finish reading them, it’s easy to forget what is in there! 😦 I hope to read the Lake and other Yoshiomoto books which can’t be found from my local library. Goodbye Tsugumi is perhaps my favourite amongst all.

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  10. Lisa, from ANZ Lit Lovers, was kind enough to forward her review copy of ‘The Lake’ to me (adding to my wonderful J-Lit personal library!), so I’ll be finding out how good it is very soon 🙂

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  11. I’m looking forward to reading The Lake at some point as well.
    Thanks for the tip-off about Goodbye Tsugumi — I’ve looked it up online and it does sound like an intriguing tale.

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