Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hitomi Kanehara, Japan, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Snakes and Earrings’ by Hitomi Kanehara

Snakes & Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 118 pages; 2005. Translated from the Japanese by David James Karashima.

What a fierce, brutal and edgy little novella Snakes and Earrings turned out to be!

Set in Tokyo, it tells the story of a 19-year-old woman, Lui, who wants to break free of the idea that she is a “Barbie girl”.

When she meets Ama, a young man in a bar, it’s not his bright red hair, nor his numerous facial piercings, that attract her, but his body modification:

He deliberately removed the cigarette from his lips and stuck out his tongue. Its tip was clearly split in two, just like that of a snake. Then I watched, transfixed, as he lifted the right tip of it and skilfully grasped the cigarette in the crux of the V.
This was my first encounter with a forked tongue.
“Why don’t you give it a try too,” he said, and I found myself nodding subconsciously.

And so, the next day, Lui finds herself in a punk/alternative store, having her tongue pierced in preparedness for it being split at a later date. (I won’t go into the detail about how this is done, but let’s just say when I read the explanation of the process on page 2 it made me feel a little queasy.)

The man who does the piercing is one of Ama’s friends. His name is Shiba and he’s not the most pleasant character in the world. There’s a dark, edgy element to him that later transpires to be sadistic. When Lui asks him to design a tattoo for her back, she gets drawn into Shiba’s secret life — and it’s not pretty.

Later, she moves in with Ama despite knowing little about him, not even his real name nor his age, and finds herself caught up in a dark, violent underworld, where life is cheap and no one takes responsibility for their actions.

Troubled lives in Tokyo

Like much of the contemporary Japanese literature that I have read, this book presents a dark world peopled by troubled adolescents who lack meaningful connections with adults or society in general. They’re alienated and drifting — often in the wrong direction.

Lui’s life seems carefree — she has no job, spends most of her time drinking beer and hanging out with Ama — but there’s a moral absence, too. When Ama loses his temper and pummels a stranger to death in the back streets, there’s no hand wringing or remorse expressed. In fact, it’s never mentioned.

And later, when Lui becomes involved in a sadistic sexual relationship, she treats it much like a game, even though her lover tells her he’d like to kill her if she ever wants to die.

But despite her poor choices — and that’s essentially what this book is about — you can’t help but like Lui. She’s smart, funny, fierce — and intent on being her own person. She wants to break boundaries, do her own thing, but the price she ultimately pays for this is heartbreaking.

The casual violence and the explicit sex is confronting (you have been warned), but it’s essential to the story, for this is a deeply unsettling tale about living life in the margins. It’s not a pleasant read, but it’s a compelling one. I came away from it feeling chilled to the bone.

In 2004, Snakes and Earrings won the top Japanese literary award, the Akutagawa Prize. The author, Hitomi Kanehara, was just 21 at the time. The book has since gone on to sell more than a million copies and is widely regarded as a cult classic.

Thanks to my friend Sakura, who blogs at Chasing Bawa, for this copy.