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From Barnes & NobleThe Big Sleep
Banana Yoshimoto exploded on the American scene in 1993 with her debut novel, Kitchen. As if following the cue given by Japanese audiences -- where the book spent a full year on the bestseller list -- critics and readers on this side of the Pacific quickly fell for Yoshimoto's breezy, quirky style. Yet, after achieving an almost cult status in certain circles here, Yoshimoto's star began to wane. N. P. (1994), Lizard (1995), and Amrita (1997) were published to progressively fading enthusiasm. Yoshimoto seemed to be moving further and further away from her unique talents; her last effort, at nearly 400 pages, was considered an unnecessarily sprawling and unfocused epic from an author who has proven herself such a deft miniaturist.
Asleep represents Yoshimoto's return to her forté. Like Kitchen, Asleep is composed of short novellas about Tokyo 20-somethings, told from the perspective of empathic and offbeat women. And, also like Kitchen, the new book deals with death, the grieving process, and a definitive moment of renewal, when the protagonists get on with the business of living. In the first piece, "Night and Night's Travelers," the tragic death of the narrator's brother Yoshihiro remains in some way painfully unresolved until she unexpectedly encounters Yoshihiro's son and former girlfriend. In "Voyage to the House of Sleep," a woman is haunted by the ghost of her former rival for the attentions of a previous lover; only after participating in a kind of séance and voicing her true feelings for the other woman does the haunting cease. And in perhaps the most eerily engaging of the three, the title piece "Asleep," a young woman named Terako, whose best friend has committed suicide, finds she can't stop sleeping. What at first appears a straightforward case of loss and depression unravels to become a much more complicated situation involving Terako's lover and his wife, who has spent the past year comatose in the hospital. "Asleep" is a delicate, sophisticated mediation on the nature of serenity, silence, watchfulness, and desire. Ultimately, it is an apparition of the "sleeping" wife who gives Terako the advice that sets her free. In the book's closing scene, Terako and her lover gaze at a display of fireworks, swallowed up in a festival crowd, happy and ready for life at last: "We felt a strange fondness for the tiny bursts of fire that we glimpsed from time to time off to the side of the skyscraper, and we kept our arms locked tightly together as we stood there, fantastically excited, waiting for the next round of fireworks to explode."
Asleep is a welcome comeback for an author of exceptional skill. The writing here is more mature and textured, less frenetic in its pacing than Kitchen, in keeping with its metatheme of sleep. Yoshimoto has often been called a "master storyteller," and the appellation is well justified in these pages. She draws along her plots nimbly and confidently, proceeding so directly and lucidly that the reader is well into the story almost before realizing it has begun. Her manner is charmingly wry, humorous, even a little mischievous, like an older sister spinning tales between S'mores at a slumber party. This tone is audible, as the narrator of "Night" explains:
When I was in junior high school, my mother found out that my father was having an affair. There was a huge commotion at home, and in the end both my parents left the house. It was the middle of winter. The affair was probably a tiny little thing, the sort of thing people have all the time, but my mother went into hysterics and ran off to her parents' house, leaving me and my brother behind. My father went to bring her back. Evidently their talks didn't go very well, things got complicated...but it would be totally wrong to suppose that my brother and I were even the slightest bit confounded at being left on our own. The first thing we did was get [our cousin] Mari to come stay with us. Next we took advantage of all of the confusion to take huge loads of cash out of the bank with our parents' ATM card and buy anything and everything that we'd been wanting. We stayed up until very late every night drinking booze.... Our parents finally returned after four days to find the entire house turned upside down, and the three of us all dressed up in fancy clothes that they'd never seen before, suffering from the lingering effects of the previous night's drinking. They were pretty shocked, and they yelled like crazy at my brother, who had been more or less responsible for everything.
But Yoshihiro didn't just give in. The idea that the two of you might split up scared me so much I didn't know what else to do! he said, making our parents cry. It was unbelievably fun.
Yoshimoto is spunky, sympathetic, and keenly sensitive. For an author tackling such ambitious themes, she entirely avoids sounding grandiose or windily abstract. In fact, her distinctive gift lies in the precise and perceptive way she handles the odds and ends of the every day. Her characters are deliciously attentive to the tiniest minutiae as they go about making tea, slurping from bowls at noodle shops, noting changes in the weather. For example, the protagonist of "Night" is so attuned to her environment that, when crossing the lobby of a luxurious hotel, just before bumping into her until-now unknown nephew, she points out, "[t]he rug was so thick and soft that it made me feel strange..." These zany characters possess such an exquisitely complete awareness that it brings them just to the edge of the supernatural but no further: They are always fully grounded in the actual. Likewise, their dialogue remains natural and casual while at the same time serving highly expressive purposes and seeming to have lost none of its fluidity even in translation. Perhaps most important, the voices of all three narrators are so clear and honest that not only do they sound convincing but the enable the reader to arrive nearly simultaneously at the conclusions they reach -- a truly remarkable feat.
Deceptively simple, seemingly artless, Asleep combines Yoshimoto's innate gifts as a storyteller with the finer crafting of a more practiced hand. Like her characters, her genius has broken through its spell of dormancy at last.