Near the beginning of The Lake, Banana Yoshimoto’s narrator, Chihiro , reveals that “All my life, I cherished the possibility of escape.” Although she insists her unconventional upbringing wasn’t particularly painful–her parents remained unmarried, her mother a club owner and her father a businessman–Chihiro is happy to sever all unwelcome ties to her past:
Sick of the town, sick of the situation, sick of everything. I was dying to get away from it all. I could almost convince myself it was a good thing my mom had died, because now I would never, ever have to go back there. Except for the fact that I no longer saw my dad as much as I used to, I didn’t regret anything.
This isn’t entirely honest, of course. She misses her mother infinitely more than such a cavalier and defensive proclamation suggests. And she feels un-rooted, a source of both loneliness and liberation depending on the day, the moment, the circumstances. Chihiro at times seems wiser and more thoughtful than her years would allow; at others, she seems like a self-absorbed teenager, and the book, especially at the beginning, sometimes reads like a YA novel. I didn’t know what I had my hands on here, to be honest. I was certain Yoshimoto is not a YA writer!
It is not a YA novel, The Lake. It is, rather, a story told from the perspective of someone who, in spite of her “rough” upbringing in her mother’s club–at one point, she notes that she heard and saw so much that was sleazy, dangerous, and twisted there that nothing could surprise her anymore–is shockingly naive, insulated, and immature.
These are the mechanisms of her own self-protection; toughness and world-weariness have become cocoons keeping out the rest of the world. But Chihiro comes to see the limitations of her way of dealing with life, comes to see how little she really understands of the damage people can do each other–or what they can, improbably, survive–as she becomes involved with the mysterious and damaged Nakajima.
Nakajima is almost, but not quite, entirely broken, but by what or whom isn’t revealed until close to the novel’s conclusion. She has theories, of course, including the most the obvious one:
I felt like I was with a little boy, and my heart ached. Because he cried like a child. It was as if his tears had nowhere to go, they were meant for god alone. I wanted to hug him to me, but I thought that might frighten him, too. So I tried something else.
“Here,” I said, “let’s hold hands as we sleep.”
I took his hand in mine. He had been hiding his eyes with the other hand since he started crying. And now he was crying even harder. I kept squeezing his thin, dry hand.
The heat in his palm made me think that sometimes it’s too late, some things can’t be fixed. I didn’t know anything about his past, but I had the sense that long ago, someone had abused him sexually. He had been completely crushed…
Even though Chihiro’s notion of what could harm someone so much is not correct, her relationship with this fragile young man is doing something to and for her that she’s not sure she wants: she’s beginning not only to think seriously of the struggles and needs of another person, she’s also finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate between her own need for inviolable independence and Nakajima’s need for patient, gentle acceptance. She’s aware of his effect on her, and while not entirely okay with it, feels powerless to resist it:
Each day was so fresh, now that I had become hopelessly attracted to this puzzling young man, Nakajima. Ever since we started hanging out, I’d been out of sorts. For years now I had been thinking only of myself, struggling to get my own way, pressing relentlessly forward, my gaze trained on an ideal future–I’d been focused exclusively on putting as much distance as I could between me and my hometown, steadfastly refusing to put roots down. But Nakajima was so intense he had rolled right over me, and now he was dragging me along behind him.
She asks herself, constantly, whether or not she loves him. Usually, she concludes no and engages in reveries of dumping him for someone less complicated, of going back to her old life. But as The Lake progresses, it becomes increasingly clear to us, if not to Chihiro herself, that such planning towards a totally connection-free future is a fake; the novel is as much about her attempts to maintain the walls keeping people out as it is about Nakajima finally find a place where he can reveal his horrifying past and be at home in someone.
The Lake is a novel about what the very notion of home is, and can be, in a world in which the ties that bind us to our original homes are either too weak to support us, never existed at all, or were torn violently away. At points, Chihiro frets that Nakajima is simply too damaged by his early ordeal (abducted by a cult reminiscent of Aum Shinrikyo, the group responsible for the 1995 Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway); she anticipates his imminent suicide and it doesn’t seem unreasonable that she do so. And yet, somehow, these two people–both of whom, before they met, lived with one foot out the door and bags packed, on all levels from the merely physical to the deeply existential–manage to begin to find a way to put down another kind of root system, to re-imagine and re-build the very notion of home.
Nakajima points out that the traces of cultural guilt they bear for being rootless simply make no sense applied to him and Chihiro: “The idea that you have to stay–that’s how people think when they have a family, and it’s located in some fixed place, whereas you and I…”
You and I, Nakajima and Chihiro: they come to see that the simple but almost impossibly brave act of cleaving to one another when they’ve been cut away from the rest of the world is an act of pure origination:
We worked in silence, like people the night before a move. Like we were starting life over again. Or like we had been doing this for a century already. Setting all kinds of things aside, willing to go back to the first days, if that’s what it took, like Adam and Eve.
Because “Nakajima’s past would always be there…the foundation could crumble at any moment.” But by the time she realizes this, Chihiro has also come to the point where running away is no longer her default. It will not be her foundation to crumble should this unlikely love affair not survive.
The Lake is a really beautiful book, in part due to Michael Emmerich’s lovely translation. It was not perfect, however. Two supporting characters, Chii and Mino, figure into Chihiro and Nakajima’s story in ways that were alternately touching and baffling. Chii and Mino are siblings with whom Nakajima spent a great deal of time when he was in captivity with the cult; they were all children together there, alternately oblivious and full of the energetic joys of youth, and aware that things were deeply wrong.
Part of Nakajima’s process of deciding to try to remain in the world involves going to see them after years of being out of contact; he does so with the help of Chihiro. It’s good and important that this happen, but the detail of Mino and Chii having strange psychic abilities was so absurd and unnecessary to everything else that occurs that it threatened to destroy the entire novel’s tremblingly beautiful power. I can’t think why either Yoshimoto or her editor thought this plot detail was needed.
Not a perfect book, but an excellent book nonetheless. I’m curious to try other Yoshimoto novels now because the only other one I’ve read, Goodbye Tsugumi, was to me alternately irritating and entirely forgettable–so forgettable, in fact, that I’m only certain I read it at all because I blogged about it, years ago, on Bookphilia.com. I only tried The Lake because of the connection to Aum; I remember those attacks and think Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche might actually be Haruki Murakami’s best book. Another lesson in bookish open-mindedness.