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.