by Banana Yoshimoto
Banana Yoshimoto is a Japanese author who has long polarised readers; while still in her mid-20s she won a number of awards and many admirers around the world for her 1988 debut novel, Kitchen. The story of a young woman coming to terms with bereavement as she befriends a young man resonated with many people.
Death and its repercussions, including the emotional recovery of those left behind, have been regular features in all 13 of her stories. And so has her simple, open, fragmented style, which often skates on the surface of a subject - only to suddenly veer towards another topic - without ever probing too deeply.
Her latest book, The Lake, written in 2005, but only just published in English, follows a similar pattern.
The book's opening section - in which the young narrator, Chihiro, recounts the death of her mother - conjures up some vivid images and has a pleasing energy about it. Chihiro's mother appears to her in a dream and warns her not to worry too much about things. 'Try to relax, both your heart and your body, try not to get flustered. Live like a flower. You have that right.'
The dream reminds Chihiro of being a child when her mother pulled the blankets over her to keep her tummy warm.
Chihiro is slowly drawn into a friendship with her neighbour, Nakajima, who spends much of his time looking out his window. Their burgeoning romance and hints of revelations about his troubled past suggest the book will prove absorbing. But that promise is undermined by Yoshimoto's tendency to digress just when things look interesting.
Nakajima's arrival in her life distracts Chihiro from what is the most absorbing part of the book - the potentially interesting dynamic of the jointly grieving Chihiro and her father, whom she has never got to know well. Yoshimoto chops and changes her focus so often to return to the less than gripping subject of Nakajima that the story loses all momentum.
Whereas Kitchen conjured up fresh and vibrant thoughts, The Lake goes in totally the wrong direction. It ends up a huge, ultimately hollow, disappointment.