Solo Dance by Kotomi Li

“There’s a limit to how much misogyny and heteronomrative bullshit a story can have.”

Solo Dance follows a millennial woman from Taiwan working an office job in Tokyo who feels alienated from her colleagues and their daily conversations about marriage, the economy, and children. Chō, our protagonist, is a lesbian, something she keeps ‘hidden’ from her coworkers. While Chō does hang out with other queer women in lgbtq+ spaces, a traumatic experience causes her to be self-doubting, distrustful of others, and perpetually ashamed. When she opens up to a woman she’s sort of seeing, the latter brutally rejects her, not only blaming Chō for having been attacked but accusing her of having been deceitful (by not having spoken about this before). This leads Chō to spiral further into depression and suicidal ideation, her disconnection further exacerbated by an ‘accident’ that occurs at her workplace. Chō’s arc brought to mind that of Esther Greenwood in <i>Bell Jar</i>, that is to say, things seem to just get worse and worse for her.


As we read of her experiences working and living in Japan as a gay woman, we are also given insight into her teenage years in Taiwan, her slow recognition of her sexuality, her first encounter(s) with women, and that devasting night that resulted in an irrevocable self-disintegration. Chō blames herself for her attack, and not only does she sabotages her relationship with her girlfriend but pushes away one of the few people actively trying to help her. Chō’s uneasy relationship with her sexuality and the physical and emotional violence she experiences over the course of the narrative make for an unrelentingly depressing read.

Throughout the course of her novel, the author links Chō’s experiences to those of Qiu Miaojin and of her fictionalised counterpart, Lazi. Both tonally and thematically Solo Dance shares a lot of similarities with Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile: both works interrogate notions of normalcy and alterity by exploring the experiences of women whose sexuality does not conform to societal norms.
Whereas Miaojin’s writing has a more cynical and satirical edge to it, Solo Dance is mostly just depressing. Immeasurably depressing. I knew going into it that the novel would not be a happy read, but, dio mio, for such a short read this book sure is brimming with queer pain & suffering. Because of this, I’m afraid I found Solo Dance to be a very one-note read. Sure, the realities it explores are sadly realistic, but, the storytelling has this flat quality to it that made it hard for me to become immersed in what I was reading. I can’t pinpoint whether it is the author’s style or the translation at fault, but while reading this I felt not so much transported into the story as merely…well, as if I was ‘just’ reading a text that didn’t quite elicit any strong responses beyond finding r*pe, lesbophobia, and suicidal ideation upsetting to read of. The story never reeled me in, which is a pity as the topics it explores are ones close to my heart (i am a lesbian and grew up in a very catholic and not particularly lgbtq+ friendly country).
The dialogues were a mixture of clumsy and dry and some of Chō’s internal monologues struck me as trying too hard to mimic Lazi’s brand of nihilistic angst. Other times it just sounded off, unnatural (“is the stigmatization of my sexuality the source of all my misfortune? This illogical question had plagued her for a long time”, “her rational thoughts returned to life and began to talk to her”). The narrative also seemed to go way out of its way in order to make Chō suffer, and while I can sometimes buy into the type of story where one character experiences trauma after trauma (a little life), here I didn’t. A lot of the interactions she has with others either struck me as unlikely or just plain unbelievable (from the words spoken by the woman who ‘rejects’ her to her encounter with another suicidal queer woman).

If you are interested in reading this book I still recommend you give it a shot (just bear in mind ‘tis dreary affair).

my rating: ★ ★ ½

All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami

Previously to reading All the Lovers in the Night, I’d read Breasts and Eggs, Heaven, and Ms. Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami. While I was not ‘fond’ of Breasts and Eggs, I did find her other books to be compelling. As the premise for All the Lovers in the Night did bring to mind Breasts and Eggs, I was worried that I would have a similarly ‘negative’ reading experience. Thankfully, I found All the Lovers in the Night to be insightful and moving. Even more so than Kawakami’s other works, All the Lovers in the Night adheres to a slice-of-life narrative. Yet, in spite of this, the story is by no means light-hearted or superficial. Kawakami approaches difficult topics with this deceptively simple storytelling. She renders the loneliness and anxiety of her central character with clarity and even empathy. Thirty-something Fuyuko Irie leads a solitary life working from home as a freelance copy editor. Her inward nature led her former colleagues to single her out, and she was made to feel increasingly uncomfortable at her workplace. Working from home Fuyuko is able to avoid interacting with others, and seems content with her quiet existence. Fuyuko receives much of her work from Hijiri, an editor who is the same age as her but is very extroverted and possesses a forceful personality. Hijiri, for reasons unknown to Fuyuko, regularly keeps in touch with her and seems to consider her a friend. Perhaps their differences cause Fuyuko to begin questioning her lifestyle. Compared to her glamorous friend, Fuyuko sees herself, to borrow Jane Eyre’s words, as “obscure, plain and little”. But venturing outside the comfort of her home has become difficult for Fuyuko. To work up the courage she begins drinking alcohol, even if her body doesn’t respond well to it. She eventually begins going to a cafe with an older man. While the two speak of nothing much, they seem happy to exchange tentative words with one another.
I can see that this is not the type of novel that will appeal to those readers who are keen on plot-driven stories. However, if you are looking for an affecting character study, look no further. Through Fuyuko’s story, the author addresses how Japanese society sees and treats women who are deemed no longer ‘young’. Marriage, motherhood, and a career seem to be the requirements for many Japanese women. Those like Fuyuko are considered outside of the norm and because of this, they find themselves alienated from others. Fuyuko’s self-esteem is badly affected by this to the point where she feels that she has to go outside her comfort zone, even if the only way to do so is through inebriation. At a certain point, I was worried that Kawakami would make Hijiri into the classic fake/mean female character who is portrayed as aggressive, promiscuous, and a woman-hater to boot. Thankfully that was not the case. While Hijiri is not necessarily a likeable person Kawakami doesn’t paint her as a one-dimensional bitch and her relationship with Fuyuko isn’t sidetracked in favour of the romantic subplot. And yes, on the ‘romance’…I will say that this man wasn’t as nuanced as Fuyuko. I found him slightly boring and generic. I did like that the relationship between the two forms has a very slow build-up to it and the ending will certainly subvert many readers’ expectations.
Anyway, overall I rather enjoyed this. I liked the melancholic mood permeating Fuyuko’s story, the descriptions of Tokyo, the mumblecore dialogues, the way Kawakami articulates Fuyuko’s discomfort, anxiety, etc. Now and again there were even moments of humour and absurdity that alleviated Fuyuko’s more depressing experiences. I also appreciated the novel’s open-ended nature, which added an extra layer of realism to Fuyuko’s story. While some of Fuyuko’s actions aren’t given a ‘why’ or closely inspected, as we read on we begin to understand more fully her various state of mind and how these affect her behaviour.
While the dialogues did have a realistic rhythm, the secondary characters (who usually did most of the talking given that our main character isn’t a talker) did tend to go on very long and weirdly specific monologues that seemed at times incredibly random or oddly revealing. This is something I noticed in other works by Kawakami. Secondary characters go on endless rants or whatnot while our main character gives little to no input. It seems a bit unusual that Fuyumu would come across so many people who are willing to go on these very long monologues that reveal personal stuff. Even so, I did find the majority of the dialogues to be effective.
All the Lovers in the Night is a work of subtle beauty and I look forward to revisiting it again in the future.

re-read: the narrative possess a quality of impermanence that is truly rare in literature. i love the attention that the author gives to Fuyuko’s various environments and the incredibly tactile descriptions. the way the author writes about light reminded me of Yūko Tsushima. i loved re-reading this and i really appreciated how the author prioritises female relationships in this narrative. the relationships and interactions between the various women within this narrative are by no means positive or easy but they speak of the kind of images and norms that their families, communities, and society have inculcated into them. additionally, the author shows how women can perpetuate misogynistic views and attitudes (casting judgement on how other women dress, their sex lives, their marital status) as well how all-consuming and toxic female friendships can be. Fuyuko’s unwillingness to conform to widely accepted ideals of womanhood and her (partly) self-imposed isolation brought to mind Charlotte Brontë’s Lucy Snowe. additionally, the way kawakami navigates her loneliness and creativity reminded me of Lily King’s Writers & Lovers.
despite the issues addressed within the narrative—sexual assault, alcoholism, misogyny, alienation—Fuyuko’s voice has this lulling rhythm that made it easy for me to become immersed by what i was reading. while in my original review i criticised the novel for its ‘monologues’ this second time around i actually found these far more credible as it was easy to see why people would open up to Fuyuko. sad and wistful, All the Lovers in the Night ultimately struck me as luminous character analysis that captures with bittersweet accuracy the realities of leading a lonely existence, missed connections, and the long-lasting repercussions of traumatic experiences.

my rating: ★★

Territory of Light by Yūko Tsushima

Territory of Light is a sparsely written novel divided into twelve chapters, each one capturing a specific moment or period of its unnamed narrator’s life. Our narrator, the mother to a three-year-old, has recently moved into a new apartment as her husband, the father of her daughter, left her for another woman. Territory of Light details through a series of fragmented snapshots the way our narrator’s everyday life has been affected by her husband’s decision. Tsushima shows how a single-mother is viewed by Japanese society, and of the pressure, she feels to be a good and capable mother. Her three-year-old has temper tantrums, she acts out, she creates problems with their neighbors and at her preschool, in short, she does not make things easy for the narrator. At times her husband reappears to recriminate her, accusing her of being a bad mother, alcoholic and refuses to concede her a divorce. The narrator also receives unwelcome advice from her colleagues and other people around her, who often warn her that to divorce her husband would be a huge mistake.

While I cannot comment on the author’s prose as I read a translation of it, I can’t say that I was drawn in by either the characters or their stories. I found the narrator’s passivity frustrating and her flashes of temper to be a bit too melodramatic. Her daughter was annoying to the extreme. She was spoilt, rude, and so very annoying. Her presence in a given scene would be detrimental to my engagement in said scene. The husband was pathetic and one-dimensional while many of the dialogues seemed to exist only to emphasize how hard life as a single-mother is for the narrator.
While I did not necessarily dislike the novel, I did not particularly care for it either. This is the kind of novel that once ‘digested’ is soon to be forgotten.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto

There is something idiosyncratic about Yoshimoto’s novels. Every time I read something of hers I feel almost comforted by how familiar it all is. Her narrators sound very much like the same person: they are young women prone to navel-gazing yet attuned to their environment (especially nature or their hometown). Moshi Moshi follows Yoshie after the death of her father, a musician and a bit of a free spirit. The way in which he died (he was involved in a suicide pact with a woman unknown to Yoshie or her mother) weighs on Yoshie. She dreams of the last night she saw him alive, imagining different outcomes that would have prevented him from leaving the house without his phone. Yoshie attempts to turn a new leaf by moving out to Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood in Tokyo, with which she fell in love. Her mother insists on staying with her, and the two women soon form a routine of sorts. One day, Yoshie, who works at a restaurant, meets a young man who knew of her father. In an effort to learn more about her father and ‘that woman’ Yoshie also reconnects with her father’s best friend.

The novel, overall, has a very ‘slice of life’ feel to it. Yoshimoto captures Yoshie’s daily life, the thoughts that pass through her head as she goes about on her day, the lingering grief caused by her father’s tragic death, the desire to understand how it could have happened. As much as I enjoyed the atmosphere and writing the romance aspect of this novel left a sour taste in my mouth. There are a few questionable remarks (for instance on sexual assault) that did not really fit with the narrative’s one. These kinds of comments were more suited to a dark comedy. The whole romance also gave me some incest-y vibes which I could have done without.
Not Yoshimoto’s best but a lot more enjoyable than her worst.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

The Lake is narrated by the quintessential Banana Yoshimoto protagonist. While Yoshimoto’s sparse yet dreamy makes for an easy reading experience this is definitely not one of her ‘strongest’ novels.
Chihiro, daughter of an ‘unconventional’ couple, moves to Tokyo in order to pursue a career graphic artist. She’s still grieving her mother’s death and spends most of her time on her own. One day, as she is staring out of her window, she sees a young man staring back from a window across the street. The two quickly form a bond and begin to spend their spare time together. Nakajima, who has also lost his mother, is somewhat unwilling to discuss his past with Chihiro and when their relationship becomes more of a romance it becomes clear to her that he must have experience some childhood trauma.
This short novel is definitely not plot-oriented as the narrative mainly consists in Chihiro either navel-gazing or pronouncing two-bit aphorisms.
While Yoshimoto does evoke the places and sensations Chihiro visits/experiences, The Lake lacked the atmosphere and feeling of Kitchen an Umi no Futa (which I believe has yet to be translated in English). And whereas I usually enjoy how nostalgic ambience of her work, The Lake just came across as dated. Chihiro seems almost to relish the idea that Nakajima may be deeply traumatised and we also have a side-character who is affected by a mysterious illness and bed bound yet she is also omniscient and able to speak through others…
Overall, this was definitely one of Yoshimoto’s more banal stories as it lacked that vital zing which usually makes her books such zesty reads.

my rating: ★★½

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The Devotion of Suspect X (Detective Galileo #1) by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X is an unusual detective novel. By the end of the first chapter readers witness the murder that is at the centre of this novel. We know the identity and motivations of the perpetrator. What follows is a compulsive game of cat-and-mouse between ‘detective Galileo’ and Suspect X. At times this felt like a chess game, in which two highly intelligent individuals try to outmanoeuvre each other.
The final chapters of this novel took me by surprise and answered some of my niggling questions regarding the actions of a certain character. Still, [SPOILERS] I’m not quite certain why he just didn’t leave the ex-husband in the river or whatever it was…why let the police find a body in the first place? The ex-wife would have been questioned but if they had no proof of the guy being dead, surely they would have soon moved to more urgent cases…especially considering that this guy wasn’t exactly a model citizen and his disappearance could have been chalked up to loansharks or something…but then we wouldn’t have a novel so…[END SPOILERS].
I think this is a novel that to best appreciated this novel one should know very little about its plot and characters before picking it up. If you like tales of suspense, police procedural, and clever mysteries, you should definitely give The Devotion of Suspect X.
The only thing that kept me from giving this book a higher rating were the characters themselves. I found some of them to be a bit wooden, and I also wasn’t particularly keen on that ending.

My rating: 3 ¼ stars

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The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan — book review

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“When I closed my eyes, I could still hear her sharp, stubborn voice and surprisingly unbridled laugh.”

With grace and clarity Clarissa Goenawan’s The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida tells a tragic yet tender tale, one that begins with an ending: Miwako Sumida, a university student, has committed suicide.

“I hadn’t thought I would use my mourning suit again anytime soon. Apart from my sister, I had no living family or relatives. My friends were around my age, and we were all approaching the first peaks of our lives. Graduating, finding a job, getting married, having kids. But Miwako Sumida wouldn’t be among us.”

The novel is divided in three sections, each one following a person who cared for Miwako: there is Ryusei Yanagi (the only first-person narrative) who was in love with her, Chie Ohno, her best friend since high school, and Fumi Yanagi, Ryusei’s older sister. Miwako’s death leaves them reeling, from shock, grief, and guilt, and forces them to question how well they knew her and whether they could have some intervened or prevented Miwako from committing suicide.
Through their different perspectives readers will slowly come to know Miwako. While we may guess what she might have been ‘hiding’ from her loved ones, Miwako retains an air of unknowability. In each section the characters find themselves revisiting their memories of her, giving many scenes a bittersweet quality. Perhaps the setting too contributes to this sense of nostalgia (most of the story takes place in the mid-to-late 80s).
Through her luminous prose Goenawan sheds light on a painful subject matter. Like her characters, she doesn’t romanticise nor condemns Miwako’s actions, rendering instead with empathy the pain that drove her to commit suicide. Goenawan demonstrates the same delicacy when touching upon subjects such as sexual abuse and bullying.
I felt lulled by gentle pace of this novel, even as the story explored distressing realities. Friendships, family history, gender, and sexuality play an important role in each narrative, and I found Goenawan’s portrayal of these to be extremely compelling.

“Her bold strokes gave off a sense of alienation and desperation, but her choice of muted colors conveyed a hidden loneliness. My sister had mastered the application of intricate details to her pieces. At the same time, she took extra care to make sure nothing was overwhelming. I recognized a delicate balance, a sense of equilibrium in all her pieces. What my sister couldn’t tell anyone, she whispered into her work.”

As much as I loved Goenawan’s evocative prose and her well-drawn characters, I was underwhelmed by the overarching storyline. The last section, which followed one of the characters I liked the most, seems far more meandering than the previous ones as it seems to move away from Miwako. And while I do count myself as a fan of magical realism, here it felt a bit sudden.
The ending was rushed and left me wanting more. Still, I would definitely recommend this to those who enjoy literary fiction.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata — book review

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“The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.”

Convenience Store Woman delights in its own absurdity. In spite of its slender size and its deceptively deadpan style, Sayaka Murata’s novel is surprisingly subversive.
Keiko Furukura’s clipped yet enthusiastic narration manages to both amuse and bewilder. In the very first pages she recounts a childhood episode in which she asks her mother whether they could grill and eat a dead bird. Yet, in spite of these macabre instances, Keiko’s narration has this effervescent energy, this ceaseless optimism, enlivens the more depressing, ambivalent, or unsettling moments.

Keiko is a thirty-six-year old who has been working part-time at the same convenience store for the past eighteen years. While her peers are married and/or have ‘proper’ careers, Keiko is quite content to remain at her convenience store. While other employees have moved on to other jobs, Keiko has no desire to change (herself and her job). She appeases her school acquaintances and colleagues by mimicking their language and behaviours, but she does so not because she actually wants to fit in or due to peer pressure but because she doesn’t want others to question her or the lifestyle she leads (for example that she has never been, nor does she wish to be, in a relationship).
We follow Keiko as she performs the ordinary tasks that make up a shift at the convenience store: welcoming customers, filling shelves, store cleanliness, serving customers at the till…while I personally hate doing these kind of things (and I work as a customer assistant) Keiko seems to genuinely like and be actually good at her job. That she is happy to be a ‘cog’ in the capitalist machine is certainly disquieting but readers will have a hard time envisioning a future in which Keiko is content not to be a convenience store worker (since being a store worker seems an integral part of her identity).

Through Keiko’s unique mind ordinary moments and conversations are tinged with surreality. Although she’s unerringly logical, a lot of her thoughts are frankly bizarre or plain outlandish. Even her most sober observations (on Japanese social and gender norms, notions of normalcy) are injected with a dose of peculiarity.
Through Keiko’s uninhibited narration, Murata emphasises the absurdities of our modern age (particularly about work culture, social conformism, the expectations society places on single women in their 30s, alienation).
Playful, funny, thought-provoking, and occasionally disturbing, Convenience Store Woman is a deeply engrossing novel and Keiko’s slightly off-kilter reality is bound to appeal to readers who enjoyed Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, books by Hiromi Kawakami, or the recently released Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto — book review

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“This story you’re reading contains my memories of the final visit I made to the seaside town where I passed my childhood—of my last summer at home.”

Goodbye Tsugumi is the quintessence of Yoshimoto. Written in her quietly poetic prose Goodbye Tsugumi is a novel that is light on the plot. Yoshimoto introduces us to her characters without preamble, offering little in terms of backstory, yet she’s quick to establish the dynamic between Maria and her capricious best friend Tsugumi. Maria’s feelings are rendered in a language that is both simple and lyrical, as Yoshimoto often juxtaposes Maria’s inner thoughts with ordinary details of her environment. Yoshimoto is particularly attuned to nature, noting the smell of the sea, raindrops, the sand. She truly conjures up Maria’s “little fishing town”, almost giving it an ethereal quality.
The friendship between Maria and Tsugumi is the focus of this short novel. In spite of their contrasting personalities, the bond between the two runs deep. Tsugumi’s prickliness stems partly from her frustration towards the mysterious malady she suffers from. Maria, who’s going to a university in Tokyo, decides to spend her summer with Tsugumi’s in her beloved village. Yoshimoto captures with clarity Maria’s impressions and feelings, vividly rendering this particular phase of her life.
An atmosphere of nostalgia envelops Maria and Tsugumi’s story, making certain scenes particularly bittersweet.
However much I liked Yoshimoto’s prose, I can’t say that I particularly cared for Tsugumi. Her capricious nature was at times excused by her condition, which is fair enough but doesn’t really give her the right to be cruel or rude.
Still, this makes for a breezy read, and fans of Yoshimoto will most likely enjoy this.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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image from: https://www.reddit.com/r/Illustration/comments/a2us72/pink_and_blue_favourite_colour_combo_a_piece_for/

KITCHEN by banana yoshimoto

With clarity Banana Yoshimoto conveys the grief experienced by her characters. In Kitchen, Mikage, an orphan, finds herself alone after the death of her grandmother. Mikage, unable to bear another loss, attempts to withdraw from the outside world. A son and his mother become her unlikely companions and while she stays with them she begins to slowly return to herself.
Yoshimoto captures the emptiness, sorrow, and sadness experienced by Mikage in a deceptively simple way. And Mikage’s grief and depression feel all the more real because of it. While many of Mikage’s observations or realizations are not particularly innovative or complex, I found her voice engaging and her inner-monologue breezy.
Yoshimoto manages to imbue ordinary objects and places (ie. a kitchen) with incredible feeling. By paying attention to small details (such as the way that sunlight shines through a glass) Yoshimoto brings to life seemingly mundane moments. Her clear and sparse writing style really lends itself to the depiction of Mikage’s grief. In her estrangement from her daily life, Mikage is empowered by small or normal things (such as kitchen utensils and or a beautiful dish).
Overall, Kitchen was a really good novella. I sympathized with Mikage and I understood the numbness that overwhelms her. The few interactions she has with other people were really lovely, and of course, her relationship with Yoichi and Eriko was incredibly sweet. And with time, Mikage does eventually find some sort of solace.
“Moonlight Shadow” lacked the realism of Kitchen. It was much shorter and, since I read it immediately after Kitchen, I couldn’t help comparing the two. Kitchen packs so much more feeling and character. “Moonlight Shadow” might also deal with grief but it does it in a far more rushed and predictable manner.
All in all Kitchen and “Moonlight Shadow” have all the classic Yoshimoto traits: a naive & zesty female narrator, unadorned prose, slice of life scenarios, and a quiet yet affecting exploration of grief and loneliness.

my rating: ★★★½

(4 stars to Kitchen, 3 stars to “Moonlight Shadow”)

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