I have decided that Banana Yoshimoto is my new favourite living author. And no, not just because she writes under the name ‘Banana’, although that is pretty cool. It is because her books are absolutely and incredibly amazing. Fear not, Kazou Ishiguro and Diane Setterfield; I still love you both, but Banana Yoshimoto is simply soaring up into the heights of my absolute favourite authors ever, joining Jane Austen, Anthony Powell and good old Charles Dickens.
I read and reviewed her two novellas, ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ back in February, and read her short story collection Asleep last month. I’ve now just finished her novel Goodbye Tsugumi, and it so, so good. It tells the story of Maria, a nineteen-year-old student, and her relationship with her cousin, the vicious, self-centred and constantly ill Tsugumi. Maria returns from university in Tokyo to the seaside inn where she grew up, to spend one last summer with Tusugmi and her sister Yōko. Tsugumi’s frail and constantly fluctuating state of health casts a shadow over the story, but it’s more a novel about growing up and about friendship.
It’s also a love story, though a strange one. The book is told from Maria’s perspective, but in many ways it’s much more about Tsugumi than her. The relationships central to the book are those between Maria and Tsugumi, and Tsugumi and her boyfriend Kyōichi. Throughout the book there is this intensely powerful and maybe doomed love going on – doomed by Tsugumi’s illness, doomed by the fact she’ll soon be moving away – but we only glimpse it through Maria’s eyes. It’s quite touching in that way, because we get the sense of something big and emotional happening that the reader is one step removed from. It would have been very easy, I think, to write this story as a love triangle, to have Maria jealous, but in fact the friendship Yoshimoto depicts between Maria and Kyōichi is really lovely and touching. They’re bound together by the fact that both of them know exactly just how unpleasant and cruel Tsugumi can be – and love her regardless.
Yoshimoto has a very deft way of capturing female friendships, especially those friendships that swing between hate and love. I found the same in her short story collection Asleep, and in Goodbye Tsugumi it’s more powerful than ever. Tsugumi, as the very first line in the book announces, is ‘an unpleasant young woman’, but we can’t help feeling towards her as Maria does: we don’t approve of her behaviour, but we do like her, and we at least half understand her. Yoshimoto shows us Maria’s weary yet constant affection for Tsugumi, of Tsugumi’s teasing and cruel love of her. The portrait of their friendship is spot on, and feels so real.
This probably comes down to just how strong the characters are. Maria and Tsugumi are fascinating and complete, and Kyōichi too is complicated but believable. Yōko is possibly my favourite character. Living as she does in the shadow of her young sister’s massive personality, Yōko could be boring – and yet in fact Yoshimoto creates a character as fascinating as Tsugumi, if in a quieter way. Maria’s friendship with Yōko, if a little less tempestuous than hers with Tsugumi, is truly moving and really interesting. I also like the presentation of Maria’s parents. Her family situation could almost be a book on its own, but instead it lies in the background of the novel; it feels whole and real, but is never dwelt upon. Even though they only appear from time to time, her father and mother, and their relationship with one another, feel so real that you get a sense of Maria’s life outside of the book itself.
What I really love about Banana Yoshimoto is the sheer beauty of her writing and imagery. Obviously when reading in translation, it’s hard to know how much the writing style is down to Yoshimoto or to her translators, but I have read works of hers done by different translators, which read with a similar style. I love that there are motifs running through several of her books: one is the significance of and sheer enjoyment in good food, and the other is the beauty and power of the night. Both are strong powerful motifs, and it’s nice to trace them through Kitchen, Asleep and Goodbye Tsugumi.
Also, I love the balance Yoshimoto gets between the story and Maria’s philosophical reflections. In contemporary Western literature, there’s been a big move away from narrative reflective; we tend to favour “showing” over “telling” to put it one way. But Yoshimoto manages in Goodbye Tsugumi to comment directly on broader feelings and issues, in a way that never feels moralising or out of place. She creates a narrative voice and a world in which it’s fine and beautiful for her narrator to say things like:
‘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.’
She makes reflections like this work in a way I think few could. It’s both fascinating and powerful. Indeed, the whole of Goodbye Tsugumi is one of those books where I kept wanting to cry as I read it, not only because it’s an incredibly moving story, but simply because the writing is so utterly beautiful and incredible.
This is an amazing book. My copy is littered with post-it notes because there are hundreds or quotes or passages that are so beautiful I want to keep track of them. It’s a deep, moving and beautifully-written story, a portrait of one summer in the lives of four teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. I heartily recommend this book, and pretty anything written by Banana Yoshimoto. In fact, half way through Goodbye Tsugumi (which I read in two days), I took a short break from reading – in order to buy all the rest of her novels second hand off Amazon.
Greatest strength: The writing and the characters, especially Tsugumi, Maria and Yōko.
Greatest weakness: Perhaps the ending. I haven’t mentioned this yet as I’m undecided on it. I didn’t feel that the ending was quite as superb as the rest of the book – but saying that, I’m not sure that a different ending would have felt any more right either, so this remains a very tentative comment.
Let’s finish on a quote (or two): ‘I never get sick of being with him, and every time I look into his eyes I just want to take the ice cream or whatever I’ve got in my hand and rub it into his face. That’s how much I like him.’
‘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.’
Next week: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins