I loved the beginning of this book. Loved it. It has a sense of dreamy immediacy, which might seem contradictory but, whatevs. Here’s how it opens:
I walked on, and something was following.
Enough distance lay between us that I couldn’t tell if it was male or female. I ignored it, kept walking.
I had set out before noon from the guest house on the inlet, headed for the tip of the cape. I stayed there last night, in that small building set amidst an isolated cluster of private houses, run by a man and woman who, judging by their ages, were mother and son.
Who is following our narrator? What do they want, if anything? When I started reading, I ignored the follower, much like Kei did. She’s wandering around Manazuru, a Japanese beach town. She’s trying to sort through her husband’s abrupt disappearance, which, despite having happened years ago, still haunts her.
Speaking of hauntings, I started to like the book a little less when it’s implied that the things that Kei sees following her are ghosts. Maybe. Very Turn of the Screw-ish. It was off to me that a book so invested in the small realities of human life, eating, sleeping, bathing, would veer off into ghost story territory. But perhaps that’s exactly the kind of story where you should expect to find ghosts. The ghost of Rei, or at least the thought of him, rarely, if ever, leaves Kei. She cannot shake the unease of not knowing what happened to him. Did he really just up and leave her? Is he alive somewhere, or not? Towards the beginning of the book she mentions that he’s been gone long enough for a divorce, not long enough to be declared dead. But she makes no moves towards either resolution.
She drifts though life, like she drifts back to the sea.
Can we talk about the food for a minute? This passage had me ready to plan my next vacation in Japan:
I ordered a set lunch. Horse mackerel sashimi.
The fish wasn’t minced, as it generally is, but sliced into piece as large as the ball of my thumb and served with finely chopped ginger and perilla leaves. The mixture was sensuously moist and slightly chewy – the cook must have let the fish marinate in soy sauce for a time. I finished everything: the soup, a fish-bone stock flavored with miso, and a heaping bowl of rice.
This reminds me of Jeffery Steingarten’s essay about how when he travels he loves eating the local cuisine, but is always craving a juicy burger upon arriving home (to paraphrase something I read years ago and can’t put my finger on at the moment). That is, until he visits Japan and has the most amazing sushi of his life. Then he dreams of perfect sushi after his juicy burger. I can’t say I’d mind experiencing that for myself.
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