When twenty-two year old Marina arrives in rural Japan to teach English, she brings along her girlfriend Carolyn and a tremendous amount of emotional baggage that she has been carrying since her father committed suicide. She soon comes to discover that living in rural Japan is a lesson in contradiction and strangeness. First off, there are the massively restrictive gomi-rules which require her to obsessively monitor her trash output, a feat which she can never seem to manage no matter how the locals scold her. Then there is the teaching job itself, in a school where real educational instruction seems to be put on the back burner in favor of technical advice and socializing. Lastly are the strange relationships that she shares with the local people, people who offer a strange kind of friendship tinged heavily with reprimand and advice. Though Marina and Carolyn are keeping their relationship status a secret from the locals, they are beginning to have an increasing amount of quarrels, leaving them ostracized from each other and the people surrounding them. Marina is also having issues with her supervisor and friend Hiro, a man who takes it upon himself to write her admonishing letters about the gomi situation and who seems to take a special interest in her personal affairs. As Marina navigates her way through the ever-changing strangeness of Japan, she discovers her true feelings about her father's death and her relationship with Carolyn, and comes to find her place in a very different and unintentionally hilarious new society.
I really loved this candid and thoughtful little book. Through her use of a dry style of comedy, Watrous is able to capture the eccentricities of rural Japan and its inhabitants in some really clever ways. Though the book was at times bittersweet, I felt that overall the story was told with a great amount of irreverence and originality, and it kept me entwined in the narrative circle throughout the whole experience.
I really liked Marina, and her confusion over the aspects of her life made her a very winsome character. She had so many issues in Japan, from the ever-growing tension of her hidden relationship to her trials with the local community and the strange camaraderie between Hiro-san and herself. She never felt sorry for herself though, which made me like her even more. She was at times very put upon, not really understanding where she fit in the society that she had been placed in, but she wasn't aloof and unfeeling in her adventures. I think some of the best parts of the book were the original reactions that Marina had to her surroundings and neighbors, her wonder and perplexity finished over with a cool veneer of acceptance and toleration. I felt bad that she had so many gomi problems as well, for that seemed to be her biggest battle. It was really funny to see the way the neighbors and Hiro-san kept returning the trash to their house after a wrong attempt had been made at disposal. The Japanese in this story were completely engrossed with their garbage and the potential recycling of the same. I thought there was a lot of symbolism in Marina's struggle with the trash. In a way it mirrored the struggles she was having with her unbidden emotions, and she was ever trying to put both the trash and her feelings into their proper perspectives and places.
Marina's relationship with Carolyn was fraught with tension throughout most of the narrative. It seemed that both of the women were emotionally bouncing off one another all the time, and the pressure of keeping their relationship a secret made them both act out in different ways. By being so clandestine, they really isolated themselves, and each other in the strictures of silence and acceptability. I thought that Carolyn could be almost a little emotionally abusive at times, for she was so cold and alienating towards Marina, and I was almost hoping that their relationship would come to a swift end. It didn't seem like they really fit together very well. They had different interests and different ways of showing emotion, and I thought that at times, Carolyn was a weight around Marina's neck that she would be better off without. Their relationship, fostered by the aftermath of tragedy was almost damaging to both of them, so I was glad that there was a bit of a resolution to their woes about each other.
One of the best things about this book was the way that it highlighted Marina's attempts at friendship with the local Japanese people. Marina was so different from them, and it took a long time for her to be able to really mesh with them, both in her personal and professional life. She had a very accepting view of the Japanese, and formed all different kinds of relationships from crushes to friendships to colleague-type relationships. The Japanese were very accepting of her, though they never lost an opportunity to try to guide her more correctly down her path. Her relationship with Hiro-san was, I think, my favorite part of the book. He takes a liking to writing her warning letters about her gomi infractions, but what first appears to be criticizing becomes the basis of a very deep and moving friendship that gave the plot of this book a winning edge.
As Marina comes to understand rural Japan, she also comes to deal with the tragedy of her father's death. There are some very insightful and emotional scenes of Marina's struggle to accept the fact of what her father has done and there is a lot of depth to her character and her actions. Her conflicting feelings about her father go very far in explaining her strange relationship with Carolyn and her desire to move half way across the world to teach in Japan. In running away from her home to Japan, she has outrun the devastation of what her father had done, and it is only natural that she must move through her strange notions of grief to obtain some kind of peace in her life. I felt very sympathetic of Marina's situation. She seemed lost most of the time, just going through the motions to fit in, but underneath there was a growing tidal wave of anger and confusion running through her.
I must also mention that this book is extremely funny. Most of the humor comes in the strangeness of everyday situations. As a Westerner, I felt that Watrous really captured the absurdity that one can feel being surrounded by people who are so different from you, yet strangely the same. The social customs of the people that surrounded Marina, along with their perplexing love of garbage, provided a lot of comic relief to the story, which I feel would have been too maudlin without it. As it was, there was a perfect balance between the odd and the tragic, making the book seem weighty yet somehow emotionally uncluttered.
I think that those readers who like unusual stories or stories about Americans on foreign soil would do well to pick up this book. It was a tremendously engrossing read and was not predictable in the least. If you gravitate towards humor with a literary bent, this book would be perfect for you as well. It was a fun read and one that didn't bombard you with its messages, though it did have them. In the back section of the book, there are some great interviews with the author in which she writes about her own strange experiences in rural Japan as well as highlights a few of her favorite books about the area. I really liked these sections and thought that they were a welcome addition to the book. I do think that this book would appeal to lots of different readers, so I urge you to give it a shot. I doubt you will be disappointed!
| About Malena
Malena Watrous is a graduate of Barnard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, She was recently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford where she’s currently a Jones Lecturer in fiction writing. Her Pushcart-nominated work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Glimmer Train, Triquarterly, The Massachusetts Review and Kyoto Journal. She also contributes to Salon.com and reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in San Francisco.
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This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.