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Four young people are sharing a small flat in Tokyo, each having drifted there in a casual, unplanned way. Forced into a kind of physical intimacy by this living arrangement, each remains emotionally isolated and, as we discover, damaged to varying degrees by their pasts. Naoki is the eldest and something of a big brother figure to the rest – he originally shared the flat with his girlfriend, who left him for an older man but still pops back to visit and stay in the flat on occasion. Mirai works hard and plays hard, spending her evenings getting drunk in gay bars. Kotomi stays home all day watching TV and waiting for her soap-star boyfriend to ring. Ryosuke is a student and as we meet him he has just fallen in love with the girlfriend of his older friend and mentor. Then one morning a fifth arrives, Satoru – no-one really knows who invited him but in this casual set-up he soon becomes accepted as another flatmate, even though no-one is quite sure who he is or what he does when he works late at night.
Although this is billed as a crime thriller, it really falls much more into the category of literary fiction. There is a crime element but it’s almost entirely in the background for most of the book. There’s not much plot as such – this is more an examination of the somewhat empty and alienated lives of these young people. Each section of the book is narrated by a different character, so we get to see what they each think of the others and also to find out a bit about what has brought them here and made them who they are.
Whenever I read Japanese fiction, I find it a strangely discombobulating experience – it always seems to reflect a society that is uneasy in its modernity, with a generation of young people who have thrown out the values of their elders but haven’t really found a way to replace them satisfactorily. There is always a sensation of drifting, of free-fall almost, and a kind of passivity that leaves me feeling as if there’s a dangerous void in the culture, waiting to be filled. But since I don’t know anything about Japan except through their fiction, I don’t know whether this is just a style of writing or whether it’s an accurate picture of the society.
I find Yoshida’s writing quite compelling and although I don’t always feel that I understand why his characters are as they are, I find them believable and fully rounded. The somewhat shocking ending of this one took me completely by surprise, and at first I felt almost as if the author hadn’t played fair with me. But a few days on I find the book is still running through my mind and I am seeing in retrospect what was hidden during the reading – which means that my appreciation for the ending has grown as I’ve gained a little distance from it.
Although this shares a translator, Philip Gabriel, with Yoshida’s first novel, I enjoyed the translation of this one much more. It is still Americanised but without the clumsy slang that irritated me so much in Villain.
On re-reading this review, I feel it isn’t giving a very clear picture of the book, and that’s actually a pretty accurate reflection of my feelings about it. I’m not sure I totally ‘got’ it (which happens to me a lot with Japanese fiction) but I am quite sure I found it a compelling and thought-provoking read. And I will most certainly be looking out for more of Yoshida’s work in future.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.