Translated by Michael Emmerich
Asleep is actually three thematically related stories dealing with death, love, and yes, sleep.
In “Night and Night’s Travelers,” Shibami and her family deal with the aftermath of her brother’s death. This is the only story in which the narrator is not also our sleeper. Instead, Shibami serves as the link between two of her brother’s former lovers. Sarah is an American exchange student who had a relationship with Yoshihiro both in Japan and back in Boston. Mari is a cousin who realized she and Yoshihiro were more to each other once he returned to Japan. Mari is sleepwalking through life in her grief. Sarah is married with two children when Yoshihiro dies, but still is profoundly affected by his passing. the two women want to reach out to one another, but never truly make direct contact. Yoshimoto’s sparse, haunting tone makes you wonder what would result should they meet up – hope, or despair?
“Love Songs” was my least favorite of the three stories. Fumi has been hearing a song in her sleep. She connects this music to Haru, a woman with whom she once shared a lover. The two women fought constantly, but had an odd attraction to one another. I enjoyed the exploration of the relationship between these two women, but I felt the rather mystical ending was a bit out of place with the rest of the story.
Finally, “Asleep,” the title story, was the most surreal. Terako is dating a married man whose wife is in a coma. She has given up her job, and spends much of her days sleeping until her boyfriend calls. For some reason, she will wake when his voice is on the other end of the line, but sleeps through any other call. She is also grieving the suicide of her friend and former roommate, Shiori. Shiori had a rather unusual job as a kind of sleep companion. Eventually, the weight of taking on other people’s dreams became too much for her to bear. Terako feels that she is now doing the same thing. It remains more and more difficult for her to wake, even to take care of her basic needs. It is only after connecting with Mrs. Iwanaga, her boyfriend’s comatose wife, that she is able to slowly climb back to the land of the living.
In each of the stories, there is a physic-like connection between female characters. Mari and Sarah, Fumi and Haru, Tarako with both Shiori and Mrs. Iwanaga. Is there a mystic bond of sisterhood? A tie that exists between women, who share so many similar experiences in this world? I tend not to personally believe in such things, but I certainly don’t mind fiction that makes me think about it.
I am glad that I joined Tony’s January in Japan Challenge, even if I got off to a rather late start. I’ve been wanting to read something by Banana Yoshimoto ever since I heard of her (I mean, with a name like that, who wouldn’t?). Thanks, Tony, for the gentle nudge! I am looking forward to reading more translated books this year, and may have to include another Japanese author or two. The review database certainly gives anyone looking for an entry point plenty of suggestions.
(And this also counts as my first read for the 2013 Translation Challenge. yay!)