I know I said I got all this manga on my last sojourn in Japan, and that was no lie. And I promise I’ll devour all of them and barf some words onto this page for your manga consideration. But that will have to wait until all those books actually get to me. There’s only so much I can stuff into my overstuffed suitcases, and I tend to give priority to things the post is not so keen on me shipping, like chu-hai and inari-zushi ingredients. Books can handle the harsh journey by boat from the land of the rising sun, and when they get finally get here, it is like Bookmas, a celebration I can truly get behind. The books that did make it into my suitcases were basically longer reads, things that would tide me over in my final week and on the plane back to Canada (where a Mount Bookstoberead awaited me). Things like the latest Natsuo Kirino.
Kirino is probably one of my favourite Japanese authors and one I really don’t talk about enough here. Her work is so, so thoughtful, never boring, always engaging with the world around her in a critical way that is often startling. I’m always surprised she hasn’t made a bigger splash in North America, especially given how good the translation of Out is. (High five to Stephen Snyder for that one!) But then I am forced to remember how terrible the translation of Grotesque is (not entirely the fault of the translator; I have heard the editor and publisher had a large hand in the hack job), and her waning popularity makes sense. Working in the publishing industry as a translator, I know very well that it’s pretty much impossible for the same translator to work on every title a particular author publishes, especially since so often, the publisher changes from book to book, and each publisher has the translators they prefer to work with. But I really wish this wasn’t the case, that a single translator could translate everything any particular author has published in English. Because an author has a voice and each translator’s going to interpret that voice differently, which is inevitably going to lead to a different voice in English.
Aaaaaanyway, translator nerding out aside, it is frustrating when someone with such a clear and consistent voice as Kirino suddenly has a mutable and varying voice in English. Especially when her work remains as relevant and powerful as the day she was first published, thirty years ago. But at least she is consistently great in Japanse, so it was with delight that I spied her latest in the bookstore by my house, which is weirdly well stocked with mysteries. (Seriously, the aisle for mystery novels is as big as the aisle for all the other fiction. Truly a mystery.) And yet again, this is a mystery novel light on mystery and heavy on characterization. Kirino might go back to the same well, but apparently, it never runs dry. She keeps telling stories about women trapped in lives not of their choosing, seeking escape, lonely people looking for a place to be and people to love them, and I never get tired of reading them.
In Yoru, Kirino makes the fullest use of her often detached, outsider style of writing by having essentially the entire book written down as a series of letters from the unreliable, naive narrator Maiko to Nanami, a woman Maiko has only read about in magazines. The letter format is so good on a number of levels. It introduces an artificiality that works so well with Kirino’s tendency to look in from outside. This time, she’s looking in from outside from the inside. So we get to see Maiko as she sees herself and the world. And when the book starts, Maiko has just turned eighteen, but she might as well be five for all she knows of the world. She lives in Napoli with her mother, after stints in all the major European cities, plus some unnamed Asian towns. Although it’s not clear to Maiko in the beginning, it is ultra obvious to the reader from the first pages that Maiko’s mother is on the run and possibly deeply mentally unstable. They move house with alarming regularity, Maiko’s mother undergoes regular plastic surgery, Maiko is instructed to never reveal her real name to anyone. In fact, Maiko doesn’t even know her real last name, where she was born, or who her father is. But she conveys these suspicious facts to the distant Nanami in the most matter-of-fact way.
She speaks Japanese with her mother and was homeschooled after elementary school, so she can write, but her writing is very childlike, all full sentences and earnest grammar, like she is afraid of making a mistake in her letters to Nanami, who she admires and relates to and feels beneath. As a narrative device, these letters have a lot going for them in this particular story, but what makes them basically perfect is the way we get to see Maiko grow through her changing language. She matures on the page before our eyes, not just in terms of the story and the experiences she has, but in the very words and sentence structures she uses. She moves from a stilted reporting of facts to a fluid and nuanced recounting of situations. We see her find herself through her discovery of language.
And a big part of that discovery comes from, of all places, manga. Through manga, she finds Japan, a place she has never been to and yet is so innately tied to. Her first encounter with manga comes not long after the beginning of the book, and in it, she finds a totally different Japan than the one her mother has given her. Her mother’s Japan is a horrible place where people are mean and judgemental and obsessed with rules and putting people in boxes, while the Japan of manga is a place where boys and girls play sports, fall in love, solve crimes, and live happily with their families. I love the critique of her homeland Kirino gets in here through the lens of manga and her naive narrator. Kirino also offers up honest and realistic portrayals of female friendship and the darker side of being a woman without any real safety net (which I won’t go into because spoilers). Although a big part of the friction in the story comes from Maiko’s changing image of Japan, manga, and her mother. And of course, herself.
And that is, in the end, the mystery (of sorts) in this book: Who is Maiko? Who is her mother? What are they running from? But much like Grotesque in particular, the questions power the narrative, but the answers are not really that important. It’s that oft-quoted journey that’s the more important thing. It’s the development of Maiko as a person with her own agency that makes this book hard to put down.