Book review: “Moshi Moshi” by Banana Yoshimoto.

Banana Yoshimoto’s novel Moshi Moshi (translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda) tells the story of a young woman struggling to move on with her life while she and her mother grieve over her father’s bizarre death. Yoshie’s father, a prominent local rock musician, was found dead in a car with another woman in what looks to be a murder-suicide (or possibly a double suicide, we never find out for sure). The exact nature of the father’s relationship is left as just as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Yoshie*, but the story isn’t really about his death as much as it affects those closest to him.

The story begins with Yoshie’s mother moving into her apartment in Shimokitazawa as she feels her late husband’s presence in their old home in Meguro. At first Yoshie is reluctant but they both needed each other’s support, not to mention a change of place. Over time the move helps both of them heal from the wound that was dealt to them both. Yoshie works in the bistro across the street, where she meets the manager of the club where her father often played. He frequents the bistro until the two of them start dating. She also gets a couple of visits from a mysterious woman whose first husband also nearly died when having an affair with the woman who killed Yoshie’s father. Throughout the book Yoshie also seeks information and finally solace from one of her father’s former band-mates.

The change that Yoshie’s life goes through is strongly tied to the sense of place, as exemplified by a passage in which she and her mother down an entire cake in the apartment:

I’d never dreamed that Mom and I could do anything as fun as gorging on an entire cake until our bellies ached. We weren’t being hysterical, or depressed. We’d just thought of something nice to do, and done it together. That kind of thing felt wrong in Meguro, but the new apartment somehow made it possible.

In Shimokitazawa Yoshie gets a job at a successful bistro, becoming more or less the owner’s apprentice. She loves her work and the area where she lives and enjoys that she’s seeing somebody. It all has the comfort of a normal adult life. Yet she still dreams of her father. She’s not repressing memories or feelings—she and her mother constantly have conversations about how they feel and memories of times the three of them had as a family. But Yoshie has trouble processing her feelings, and needs all the help she can get in order to work them out as best she can.

Moshi Moshi has a slice-of-life feel throughout the book. It has a plot and it flows well, but it sets itself up in ways that a reader may feel misleading. The death of Yoshie’s father and the visit from the woman whose husband also had an affair with the dead woman implies that this book could have been a mystery. Yoshie’s mother seeing the ghost around the old apartment and Yoshie’s recurring dreams suggest that it could have been a ghost story of some sort. But these end up becoming fact-of-life occurrences, adding to the story but not taking it over.

That is not to say the book is disjointed or jarring. The light atmosphere the book presents with its grim setup may seem conflicted at first, but it only serves to help make the point. Even when struck by the horrifying loss of a loved one, life moves on. We may need some help and a change of place to help it do so, but it moves on regardless.

*Or Yocchan. Characters in the book refer to her with both names. I’m sorry, in the limited time I had to do research before publishing this blog post I couldn’t find out if one is the common nickname of the other, or if there was some other reason why her names were interchangeable. Perhaps somebody could help me in the comments below?


This Week’s Book Review (Finally): “Pull Me Under” by Kelly Luce.

In Kelly Luce’s Pull Me Under, Rio Silvestri’s husband Sal is obsessed with puzzles. Originally this looks like a quirk thrown in for one of the secondary characters, but as the book goes on we realize that it represents the puzzle of Rio’s life that she’s struggling to put together. There are not only pieces that she kept hidden from Sal but also herself, and even when she does see them they never quite fit together correctly.

Rio was born in Japan as Chizuro Akitani to an American mother and a Japanese father. She felt a deep connection to her mother who didn’t conform to Japanese rules of society and an estrangement to her father, a celebrity violinist. At age twelve Chizuro killed a fellow classmate who bullied her constantly. She was sent to a detention center with little connection to the outside world. Her mother had already committed suicide by the time of the killing, and her father only visited her once which didn’t go well.

When Chizuro reached twenty she was released and in an effort to escape her former life she changed her name to Rio and moved to America. There she married Sal Silvestri and together they raised a daughter, Lily. Rio told Sal that she was estranged from her father but never told him about killing her classmate, instead making up a fictitious teenage life in Japan.

One day, when Chizuro was in her thirties, she received a package from Japan with a letter informing her that her father died. Despite her feelings for her father the contents of the package she decides to take a trip to Japan to go to her father’s funeral. Despite her feelings for her father, the mysterious contents of the package compels her to go, as well as some force—perhaps a desire for closure—draws her towards her old home. She reflects on this as her plane is about to land: “I’m attached to a tether. The tether is firm and gentle and it’s drawing me toward Japan. It’s a new sensation, and not uncomfortable. It feels like the plane is not propelled but pulled, an entire island nation reeling me in.”

The book does contain such language and imagery like the puzzles which feel a bit too much at times, as if the reader can’t figure out what’s going on or what the meaning is behind certain moments in Rio’s life. It’s as if Rio feels like she needs to explain every detail of her thought process with random occasional symbolism. But the story is compelling enough that it keeps the reader going, especially when Rio decides to take a spiritual pilgrimage with her former teacher, Miss Danny. To describe what happens when Rio reunites with Danny and they go on the pilgrimage together would give away too much important plot information. But from that point on Rio’s life begins to spiral out of control, and many puzzle pieces start to fall into place—including ones she didn’t realize were missing.

The book’s narrative may explain more than it has to, and the story ties everything together a bit too neatly, if unpleasantly for Rio, but it’s still well worth the read. People who grew up failing to meet the expectations of their culture and parents may also feel a connection here, as Rio plays out the fantasy that those of us bullied in school entertained. The problem for her is that she has to face the consequences of that decision well into her adult life.