Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto #bookreview

goodbye tsugumiGoodbye Tsugumi is the story of one summer in the lives of two girls who are related by blood if not by temperament. 

Tsugumi  Yamamoto is a mercurial character. An invalid from a young age she has grown up in a small seaside inn as a spoiled and occasionally mean spirited girl around whom everyone tiptoes, afraid to spark her ill-humour.  According to her cousin Maria, Tsugumi “was malicious, she was rude, she had a foul mouth, she was selfish, she was horribly spoiled, and to top it all off she was brilliantly sneaky.

Maria  Shirakawa (the narrator) is a more thoughtful girl, a model of patience and affability who has learned to deal with the uncertain relationship of her parents – her father is a businessman living in Tokyo, her mother is his mistress who lives and works in the inn. She is aghast at some of Tsugumi’s pranks and hurt to be the victim of her acid tongue but she is still drawn to the girl.

It wasn’t narcissism.  And it wasn’t exactly an aesthetic.  Deep down inside, Tsugumi had this perfectly polished mirror, and she only believed in the things she saw reflected there.  She never even considered anything else.
That’s what it was.
And yet I liked her even so, and Pooch [a dog] liked her, and probably everyone else around her liked her too.  We all continued to be enchanted by her. 

Part of Tsugumi’s attraction is that she has a vivid imagination which makes her fun to play with. She creates wild and inventive games for her and Maria, including their favourite “The Haunted Mailbox” in which they pretend to receive letters from the dead in an old rusted box behind their school.

When her father gets his divorce, Maria and her mother move to Tokyo and Maria  embarks on a new path in her life as a university student. But a call from Tsugumi offers her a chance to return to the inn for one last summer before the place is sold. It’s a chance to recapture idyllic summers of the past and to deepen the bond with her difficult cousin. She acknowledges that Tsugumi is “really an unpleasant young womanbut that summer she sees for the first time the inner strength of her friend and has to face the real possibility that she could lose her.

In essence this is a coming of age novel in which Maria comes to appreciate that time does not stand still, that her childhood is in the past and loss is a part of growing up.

Summer was coming.  Yes, summer was about to begin.
A season that would come and go only once, and never return again.  All of us understood that very well, and yet we would probably just pass our days the way we always had.  And this made the ticking of time feel slightly more tense than in the old days, infused it with a hint of distress.  We could all feel this as we sat there that evening, together.  We could feel it so clearly that it made us sad, and yet at the same time we were extremely happy.

This is a beautifully atmospheric novel rather than one which has a strong plot. We get a  strong sense of sadness at the loss of the idyll of one’s youth (the goodbye of the title is not the end of a relationship but the end of childhood innocence) but there is also a feeling of hope as Maria comes to appreciate the potential of her own life in the future. 

Yoshimoto’s description of nature and the beaches and the mountains at the resort have a poetic quality which also drew me in.

The whiteness of the flowers seemed to levitate in the dark. Every time the crowd of petals bobbed under a puff of wind you were left with an afterimage of white that had the texture of a dream. And just beside that dream the river continued to flow, and off in the distance the dark nighttime ocean stretched the glow of the moon into a single gleaming road. The black waters before us swelled up and fell back again, glimmering with tiny flecks of light, the dark motion extending all the way to infinity.

I also enjoyed her gentle, yet thoughtful style. Here is just one example:

Each one of us continues to carry the heart of each self we’ve ever been, at every stage along the way, and a chaos of everything good and rotten. And we have to carry this weight all alone, through each day that we live. We try to be as nice as we can to the people we love, but we alone support the weight of ourselves.

I’ve seen some comments from other reviewers that Goodbye Tsugumi isn’t as strong a novel as her debut work Kitchen. Since I’ve not read that or anything else by Yoshimoto in fact I can’t judge how accurate that assessment is. Goodbye Tsugumi may not be as rich in philosophy or big ideas as some of the other Japanese authors I’ve read but I still enjoyed it.

Footnotes

About this book: Published in Japanese in 1989, translated into English in 2002 by Michael Emmerich.

About the author:  Banana Yoshimoto is the pen name of the Japanese writer Mahoko Yoshimoto whose debut novel  Kitchen was widely applauded on publication in 1988. Yoshimoto began her writing career while working as a waitress at a golf club restaurant. Apparently she adopted the name Banana because of her love of banana flowers, but also because she considers it “cute” and “purposefully androgynous.”. She has written 12 novels many of which deal with themes  of love and friendship, the power of home and family, and the effect of loss on the human spirit. 

Why I read this book: I have a feeling I came across the name of Banana Yoshimoto when I was reading about the Japan in January project run by Tony at tonysreadinglist. It’s been stuck on my shelves for a few years now but I dusted it down ready for Japan lit challenge. It also counts as one of my 20booksofsummer reading list.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 13, 2017, in #20books of summer, Book Reviews, Japanese authors and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. This past spring I taught a class in which we talked about Japanese cell-phone novels, which are hugely popular in Japan. They outsell–by several millions–the bestsellers in the United States. Publishers tried to capitalize in the love of cell-phone novels and publish them as paperback books. Most authors of cell-phone novels are young Japanese women who keep their identities secret. They write semi-autobiographical works, which contain information that would shame their families if the author’s true identity were revealed. Many authors have cute names, like Banana, so I wondered if this novel started as a cell-phone novel. However, the cell-phone genre is more cutesy, simplistic. It wouldn’t look anything like the quotes you provided from this book.

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    • Ive never heard of this but can’t imagine a more unpleasant experience than reading on a cell phone screen. Even with the larger size screen like the Samsungs, there would be too much clicking to the next screen for me. Bad enough on a kindle which is bigger again. Still if it gets people reading then who am I to nay-say this.

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      • According to the article, which was a few years old (2011, I believe), many Japanese teens and young adults don’t have access to the internet via computers, so cell phones are it. There are also voices that criticize cell-phone novels as juvenile for their lack of good grammar and punctuation and content–but those stories certainly serve a purpose in Japan, according to the author. I’ve heard of Twitter novels and tried to read one, but the timeline of Twitter is absolutely wrong for a novel. If someone Tweets 2,000 times for a novel, you have to be able to go back 2,000 Tweets on their timeline! Not doable without infinite patience, in my opinion.

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        • I suspect these kinds of novels would be popular in South Korea for the same reason – their internet connections via phone are amazingly fast. You’ve made me curious now so i shall have to bug some of my former colleagues from Japan and Korea and ask them what they know about this trend.

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        • Report back when you find out!

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  2. buriedinprint

    She’s been one of my MustReadEverything authors for years now. My favourite depends on my mood, but Kitchen is the first I read, so there is a special fondness attached to that one for me. I’ve often wondered if other readers of hers simply couldn’t enjoy her other books because they were not “another Kitchen” given that it was – for a long time – the easiest of her books to find in translation, so it was many readers’ starting point, and when they loved it they couldn’t help but want more, so every other might feel like a disappointment. It’s good that you started elsewhere: I have a feeling you will enjoy all the others!

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  3. I really like Yoshimoto’s writing, understated and clear and limpid. I haven’t read this one but it sounds like a good one.

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  4. I would also recommend The Lake, by her as well. I really enjoyed it: https://wordsandpeace.com/2011/11/22/85-review-the-lake/

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  5. I’ve wanted to read something by her for a while now. I had gotten Kitchen from the library, but never had an opportunity to read it before it was due back. This sounds interesting too. Another book to add to my TBR.

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  6. This is a comment from Meredith at Bellezza who had technical problems trying to leave a comment herself: “What a beautiful review! You captured perfectly how I experienced the novel when I read it, too, many years ago. There is more atmosphere than plot, and the sadness is not something which overcomes hope. I’m so glad you liked the character, the book, the writing! Off to add it to the review list, and thank you for participating in the Japanese Literature Challenge 11.”

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  7. I picked up a copy of one of her novels (Amrita) for $1 on my last trip to the States. After enjoying Murakami so much, I thought I should give another famous Japanese author a go. Thanks for whetting my appetite!

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  8. I’ve been thinking of reading something by this author for a while now. This sounds like it would be a good one to try – a suitable entry point. The quiet, thoughtful style you mention definitely appeals to me.

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  9. Uh… her pen-name is “purposefully androgynous”? *chortle* Can you imagine the ribbing a bloke would get if he had the name ‘Banana’?

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    • It’s certainly different. I can imagine trying to give this as your name via phone to government departments would prove challenging. You’d get all sorts of variations of spelling as people wrote what they thought they heard

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      • Speaking of last names a former supervisor and still friend of mine has the last name Chicken. And whenever I would say, I’m calling from Mr. Chicken’s office there would be a pause and some snickers and some outright laughter. One thing is for sure once you hear someone named Banana, you’re not likely to forget it.

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