I was really excited to learn there was going to be a new English translation of a Banana Yoshimoto novel and doubly so when I received a copy to review. Kitchen and Goodbye, Tsugumi are two of the first novels I read in Japanese as a teen. I like Yoshimoto’s simple and sparse style. It isn’t over-complicated even though the themes she addressed were.

The Lake once again covers familiar grounds. It’s more about the inner life of people rather than the external, although in this novel, it has a huge bearing on the characters. Chihiro is a young artist who has lost her mother, who owned a bar, and is estranged from her father, a respected small town businessman. She has managed to escape from her town to study art and live in Tokyo. She soon begins to notice a tall, thin boy who lives in a flat across from hers. As their friendship blossoms into love, Chihiro realises that Nobu hides a childhood trauma that may break their fragile relationship.

It’s interesting how Yoshimoto always seems to focus on the shattered pieces of the past. Her characters are flawed and hurting but ultimately help each other. There is no perfect adult who hasn’t seen their share of pain. In this novel, Chihiro is not only running away from small town social conventions, but also the stigma of illegitimacy, even though her parents had a warm and loving relationship. Nobu, on the other hand, has experienced severe childhood trauma, and with echoes of the notorious Aum Shinrikyo cult, he is not only looking for someone to help him, but to also give him the confidence that he can function as a normal human being.

One of the things I always find interesting when reading Japanese novels is how the notion of freedom from social conventions for women always results in them being a ‘mama-san’ who owns a bar. In turn giving them financial freedom, it also stigmatises them as they work entertaining clients outside of normal working hours. In some ways I can see how this is exciting material for novelists as the notion of freedom starts to become a lot more complex. It also brings in the class division between the working class and the elite which is still prevalent in Japan today. Just a thought.

Ultimately, I felt this novel only skimmed the surface of what is a disturbing yet fascinating look into how people cope with complex issues. I really like Yoshimoto’s style which is clean and sparse and gently takes you along the journey, yet I also felt at the same time that it was too simple and lacked a certain beauty. I couldn’t really sympathise or understand Chihiro’s thoughts and the story seemed to ramble a little. In some ways, The Lake may have benefited with more editing, although I also wanted Yoshimoto to explore Chihiro and Nobu’s relationship more fully.

However, Yoshimoto does touch on some interesting points and The Lake also reminded me a little of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, although the latter felt more complete and discussed the themes more fully.

All in all, I found The Lake to be an easy read, and you do want to find out exactly what Nobu had gone through. But it did fall a little short of my expectations, which were extremely high. However, don’t let this put you off reading The Lake. There’s still something about the atmosphere Yoshimoto creates which will linger on long after you finish the last page and makes you want to explore more of her writing.

I read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 5. Do also check out what Eva, lisa, Gavin and For Books’ Sake thought.

So, Melville House Publishing has kindly sent me a spare copy of The Lake to give away. If you would like a chance to win, please leave a comment and tell me which book divided your opinion but still would recommend to others and I will pick a winner (in some random manner) in a week’s time. Open worldwide.