Nov 23, 2009

Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto

Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto

Banana Yoshimoto’s Asleep collects three slightly surreal novellas, all narrated by young women, and all connected with sleep—and loss. The first is called “Night and Night’s Travellers”, and it was my favourite of the three. It's narrated by Shibami, who is mourning her brother’s death. But this is as much her story as it is that of her cousin Mari, who had a deep connection with her brother and was profoundly affected by his passing. And it's also Sarah's story—an American exchange student who fell in love with Shibami's brother, and who hides a secret whose discovery brings her some solace.

In “Love Songs” we meet Fumi, a young woman who has been hearing a voice singing ethereally every night right before she falls asleep. The voice reminds her of Haru, another woman with whom she was once part of a love triangle, but who she hasn’t seen or heard from in years. Fumi and Haru supposedly hated each other, but the more she thinks of the other woman, the more Fumi realizes her feelings were more complex than that. Finally, “Asleep” is Terako’s story. Terako’s best friend Shiori has recently taken her life, and ever since, Terako has been sleeping her days away. She hasn’t told anyone what happened, not even her boyfriend—a boyfriend who has a wife in an irreversible coma, and who is mourning a loss of his own.

What I enjoy so much about Banana Yoshimoto’s books is not really the plot, and not even the characters—though I like these well enough. The reason why they appeal to me so much is the tone she uses—subtle, introspective, melancholy, subdued, bittersweet, and at times achingly beautiful. The emotional content of her stories is never flashy—most of the time, it's merely implied, and you find yourself slowing down to let it wash over you. If the tone were any different, I can see these stories becoming sentimental, or leaving me indifferent, or both. But fortunately the tone is just right, and this makes them both moving and memorable.

These are sad stories, but they're of a kind that is likely to leave you with a smile. Not because what is painful about them is brushed aside with levity at the end, but because they end at a point where you can just start to see the characters move on to a better place. These three young women confront their losses, and though this doesn't erase their pain, it allows them to begin to move beyond it.

Another thing I really enjoyed about Asleep was its surreal and dreamy tone; the seamless mix of fantasy and reality. Two of the stories have ghostly apparitions, and even the one that doesn't allows you to imagine one just around the corner. These moments of strangeness, which could very well be dreams, feel natural among the book's late night hours, sleep-walking episodes, and lonely, thoughtful protagonists.

The more I read Banana Yoshimoto, the more I enjoy her work. And I've yet to pick up Kitchen, which most people seem to think of as her masterpiece. I mustn't let another year go by before I read her again.

Bits I liked:
The road stretched along one of the mounded-up banks of a river near the house where my father had grown up. It was that time of the evening, when off in the distance the other bank of the river is just beginning to drop away into the darkness of night. Soon the halo of light that always hung over the town would be reflected in the river, and even now the clear air was gradually filling with indigo, the indigo air drifted up, so that you almost felt as if you were seeing the air itself. The sky gleamed ever so faintly with the last traces of daylight, and everything was blurred, difficult to distinguish. Everything was beautiful.

The reverberations of that voice wandered sweetly, softly, working like a massage on the area of my heart that was the most tightly clenched, helping those knots to loosen. It was like the rush of waves, and like the laughter of people I’d met in all kinds of places, people I’d become friendly with and then separate from, and like the kind words all those people had said to me, and like the mewing of a cat I had lost, and like the mixture of noises that rang in the background in a place that was dear to me, a place far away, a place that no longer existed, and like the rushing of trees that whisked past my ears as I breathed in the scent of fresh greenery on a trip someplace…the voice was a combination of all this.
They read it too:
She Reads Books
Tip of the Iceberg
vvb32 reads

(Did I miss yours?)

26 comments:

  1. You must read Kitchen - it's just beautiful! I'll add this to my Banana Yoshimoto tbr list, which now includes everything she's written.

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  2. I was just going to comment too that I've heard Kitchen is phenomenal. I need to explore this author!

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  3. The prose sounds so lovely, but it does seem like it would be sad! I'm not sure why, but I've never read anything by a Japanese author that wasn't sad.

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  4. I just love the name Banana.

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  5. Asleep is my fav after Kitchen! I really love Banana Yoshimoto.

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  6. It's been many years since I read kitchen and I have forgotten what Banana Yoshimoto sounds like and why I liked it so much. I haven't read Asleep yet, but your review has made me want to go out and get it immediately.

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  7. Banana Yoshimoto was on my Friday Finds last week. Eva had read Hardboiled and Hardluck which both appealed to me. I shall now need to add this one too.

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  8. It's so funny that I just picked this up yesterday from the throwaway pile at HPB. There were more than one copy in there, too. I know so little about Japanese literature and I've seen her name around the blogosphere a lot lately, so I picked her up on a whim. It sounds like a good book. I feel better knowing you enjoyed it.

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  9. I've been seeing this author kicking around on a bunch of blogs, and with each review, I become more convinced that I need to give her a shot. I've seen her books a few times at the used bookstore that we frequent (frequent being absolutely the correct term! ;) ), but have never hazard to pick up any of her books. I definitely think that I need to rectify this asap!

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  10. I really want to try one of Banana Yoshimoto's books and this sounds like a good one to start with.

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  11. I would pick this book up based solely on the author's name. How cool is the name Banana Yoshimoto?!

    And how cool that you ALWAYS manage to find such interesting and seemingly-obscure books to read. You're so good at it!

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  12. Great review-I am one of the few people it seems who think her best work is in Goodbye Tsugumi -Kitchen is great also and Hardboiled and Hardluck are also wonderful novellas-

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  13. I liked the dreamy tone too. And I still need to read Kitchen! I added a link to your wonderful review over at my place :o)

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  14. I look forward to reading this! I loved Kitchen and I hope you'll read it soon! Can't wait to hear what you'll think when you get to it. ;)

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  15. I need to explore this author too!

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  16. How do u find these wonderful books. Your recommendations are so off the popular radar but soo good that I just have to read them .At times I feel that there is a completely different alternative universe of books I haven't known :)

    I am going to read this one. Thanks for the rview.

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  17. Have never read anything by this author. Clearly I have to fix that! Your description of the importance of her "tone" to the story sold me. So I guess I'll start with this one, and then go to Kitchen, which everyone says is wonderful. Thanks for the lovely review.

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  18. I love her books for their style too. :)

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  19. O.K., it was one thing when you read a novella last month without joining the November Novella Challenge, but now you go and read three more without joining? Should I be offended? ;)

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  20. And I mustn't let another year go by before I read her for the first time! Definitely have a feeling I'm going to love her writing.

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  21. I have Kitchen in my tbr pile to read and have heard good things about it. But i like short stories and novellas so this sounds like a great book to read.
    Thanks for a great review Nymeth!

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  22. The only book I am familiar with from Yoshimoto is Kitchen, which I have also seen great reviews for. This book sounds very ephemeral and quiet, which is something that I think I could really appreciate. I also like that it is broken up into three separate stories dealing with the same theme. I think that it might give me a better sense of her writing to have a few different pieces to look at. This goes on the ever growing list!!

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  23. JoAnn: It does sound beautiful! And I want to read all of her books too.

    Sandy: You do - she's just lovely!

    Jill: It was sad, but not depressing, if that makes sense. And you're absolutely right - there's something very Japanese about the mood of these stories, if that makes sense.

    Care: Me too :P

    Marineko: I must read Kitchen soon!

    Sakura: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Vivienne: That book Eva reviewed sounds so good too!

    Aarti: I think I remember reading somewhere that she picked it as a pseudonym because it was a word that was the same in several languages :P And I have the lovely Terri B to thank for this book :)

    Mel: I read Goodbye Tsugumi last year and I loved it!

    Terri B: Thanks again for sending me the book :D

    Melody: I must - your review made me want it more than ever!

    Alice: Yes!

    Shona: My secret are other book bloggers ;)

    ds: I hope you enjoy them both!

    Eva: Clearly I need to read more of them :) The one you reviewed sounds lovely too.

    J.T. Oldfield: Noooooooooo! Please don't be! I was going to sign up after The Turn of the Screw, but I suck and forgot :( Will you host again next year? *puppy eyes*

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  24. Debi, I suspect you will, yes!

    Amy: I hope we both love Kitchen :D

    Zibilee: I loved that the stories all explored the same themes from different angles. They weren't quite interconnected stories (something I LOVE), but close enough :)

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  25. Banana Yoshimoto is an author a friend of mine has been trying to get me to read for a while now. She's loved every book she's read by her.

    I like your description of the author's writing, about the tone of her books.

    Thank you for your great review, Nymeth. As always, you so often do, you've added another book to my wish list. :-)

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  26. Great review-I am very much an admirer of her work-do we know if the 3 stories in Asleep were written for this collection or were they assembled after the fact?

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