REVIEW | The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

image via Strand

title: The Lake [support an independent bookseller and purchase at Strand]
author: Banana Yoshimoto
genre: fiction
pages: 188
source: New York Public Library

It was this blurb on The Millions about Yoshimoto’s The Lake being shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize that prompted me to pick it up:

“The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto: She’s big in Japan, inspiring a cult following and selling upwards of six million novels, but Banana Yoshimoto will always polarise opinion. Critics may be tempted to call her Murakami-lite, given her fondness for the same kind of broad subjects as her heavyweight compatriot – ultra-modern and slightly otherworldy paeans to urban restlessness. But that comparison probably doesn’t do Yoshimoto too much justice. Certainly, Murakami could learn from her brevity. The Lake revolves around the relationship between two fragile students, Chihiro and Nakajima. Nakajima bears the scars of a terrible past, and the plot – such as it is – concerns Chihiro’s attempts to figure him out (complete with a visit to a couple of Nakajima’s mysterious old friends who live in a run-down shack by the side of a conveniently misty lake). It has its moments, and her champions – of whom there are many – will doubtless shout her claims from the rooftops. But if this was the best book to come out of Asia this year then I’m – well – a Banana.”

After reading The Lake, I’m planting myself firmly on Team “Murakami-lite.” I’d even argue that although 1Q84 could have done with a bit of editing, Yoshimoto has far more to learn from Murakami in terms of character development and literary language. Yoshimoto’s narrative is spare, almost arid. I had expected her style to be simple, but not barren. What drew me to the book was all the buzz I’d read about the story. The story was supposed to be so compelling, so mysterious…I just didn’t find it so. I just don’t get what all the fuss is about.

Back when I was a teacher, one of the teaching points we spent a lot of time on during the Writer’s Workshop was the concept of “show not tell” when developing a character. Granted, I was teaching first and second grade, where “show not tell” was incredibly basic (read: instead of telling me you felt sad, show me what you said and did and looked like that would let your reader know that you felt sad). Yoshimoto could brush up a bit on her “show not tell” technique. The story is written in first person from the perspective of Chihiro, an artist who starts a relationship with a young man who lives across the street. Instead of letting the reader infer how Chihiro is feeling or evolving over the course of the story, nine times out of ten Yoshimoto has Chihiro just tell us in a super straightforward manner, which seems a bit elementary. Maybe it was an intentional stylistic decision, but for me, it felt too easy.

Rubric rating: 4. If this was the best book to come out of Asia this year then I’m–well–stunned.

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