Over the last couple of years, I have made slow but steady progress reading my way through Banana Yoshimoto’s oeuvre. Amrita marks the thirteenth work that I have read by her and, as in many ways, it exhibits many textbook Yoshimoto traits: an atypical family unity, an irreverently optimistic tone (regardless of the subject matter), a narrator whose navel-gazing belies her sagacity and a keen awareness of the motives and natures of those around her, allusions to or inclusions of incest and incest-y dynamics, vibe-driven stories that combine the mundane with a fair share of improbable scenarios, mumblecore dialogues, and characters who are ailed by inexplicable physical and/or metaphysical malaises (i swear one day i will create a bingo of the motif/tropes you are guaranteed to find in a yoshimoto book). Yet, it also stands out against most of Yoshimoto’s work. Whereas Yoshimoto’s books usually are relatively short in length, Amrita is a more traditional full-length novel. Additionally, while much of Yoshimoto’s work is characterized by a dreamlike atmosphere, at times even by a soft use of magical realism, Amrita leans much more into the paranormal. Mid-way through Amirta I came to the conclusion that Yoshimoto’s idiosyncratic storytelling shines best in a shorter format and that I prefer her blink-and-you-miss-it use of fantastical/improbable elements.
Amrita’s length makes Yoshimoto’s propensity for plotless narratives all too apparent. Funnily enough at the end of the novel the main character, Sakumi, lists the major incidents/experiences that she has undergone throughout the book but these are so loosely strung together that this sequence of events is related/presented to us in a very haphazard way. That is to say, I was often disorientated by the story’s direction, and wasn’t sure what had happened when if something was even happening, and where the narrative was heading. The opening of Amrita is the most cohesive part of the story. Yoshimoto introduces us to Sakumi’s unusual family unity: her mother, who is cheerful if self-absorbed, her peculiar younger brother, a cousin (a character who is not particularly memorable), and her mother’s childhood friend. Although we learn of Sakumi’s younger sister, Mayu, at one point a model, tragic death, this family unity seems carefree and vivacious. Before we gain an impression of their various dynamics or we glimpse the grief underlying their everyday lives, Sakumi, in a very soap-opera-ish plot-point, loses her memory.
The storyline unfolds rather aimlessly, with random, incredibly inconclusive conversations and scenes. I never understood just how much memory Sakumi had lost as her understanding of the past and the people around her often betrayed some form of prior knowledge, of shared history, that didn’t fit in with her thinking that she has lost her memory and can’t recall the past. Sakumi becomes involved with Mayu’s former lover who is truly appalling. The guy treats and speaks to her in such a dickish way that I wanted him to cease being part of the story. Neither Sakumi nor the guy think much about Mayu or feel remorse/anxiety/any sort of thing really about becoming involved. Sakumi rarely thinks of her sister, and when she does she paints her as this broken manipulative beautiful girl…the two end up travelling together and meeting a couple that is even more questionable than they are. If I didn’t misunderstand, the other girl confides in Sakumi that as a child she used to think of her dead mother’s vibrator as a trinket. Sure, she did not know what it was but it seemed risible to me that she would feel such affection for this object (as opposed to something else that belonged to her mother).
Much of the narrative also is centred on Sakumi’s brother, who is a bit of a brat and a whiner. He develops increasingly stronger psychic abilities, from telepathy to precognition. His abilities/nature makes it difficult for him to lead a regular life and he stops going to school. Bizarrely enough his mother doesn’t seem particularly concerned by his behavior, dismissing any notion of him being actually psychic or in need of help. Sakumi at times speaks of his abilities as if they are an undoubted fact, other times she forgets that he is actually psychic. The story, later on, sees him become friends with people like him and there it really did lose me.
I would have liked it more if the story had been much shorter and more focused on Sakumi’s family unity, as opposed to Mayu’s jerk ex, his outlandish friends, and the paranormal factor. Still, even if the story’s dragged, weighed by an absence of plot and an abundance of random, often wholly ridiculous, exchanges, I have a soft spot when it comes to Yoshimoto so I can’t say that I disliked Amrita. However, if you are a newcomer to Yoshimoto I would recommend checking out Kitchen or Goodbye, Tsugumi. Her collections of short stories Asleep and Lizard are also worth a read.
My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
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