Tohko, the real delicacies are hand-written stories. To satisfy her gourmet tastes, she's employed (rather, browbeaten) one Konoha Inoue,
who scribbles away each day after school to satisfy Tohko's appetite.
But when another student comes knocking on the literary club door for advice on writing love letters, will Tohko discover a new kind of delicacy?
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Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime
By Nomura, Mizuki
Yen PressCopyright © 2010 Nomura, Mizuki
All right reserved.
Prologue–Memories for an Introduction—Volume 1: The Author, Girl Prodigy
Mine has been a life of shame.
Hold on—who’s that talking? An actor? An athlete? A politician who was arrested for corruption?
Maybe it’s a little overblown to talk about my life so dramatically since I only just started my second year of high school. But the things I experienced at fourteen turned my world upside down. Trial followed on tribulation, which was followed by bursts of outright craziness, and in one short year, I felt as if my life had come to an end.
Why? Because during that year, the eyes of all Japan were on me: a brilliant, mysterious author who happened to be a lovely young girl.
It all started in the spring of my last year of middle school.
I was fourteen-soon-to-be-fifteen, living the life of a perfectly ordinary middle school boy. I had friends, had a girl that I liked, and the kind of fun you’d expect someone with those things to have. An impulse made me submit the first novel I’d ever written to a literary magazine for a new author competition. I won the grand prize and was the youngest winner ever, to boot.
My narrator was a young girl, and my pen name was Miu Inoue—a girl’s name—so I got a ton of publicity with headlines such as “Youngest Winner Ever! 14-Year-Old Girl Takes the Prize!” or “In a Unanimous Decision, Realistic Style and Refreshing Sensitivity!”
God, I’m so embarrassed.
My publisher ran with it. “People are more receptive to girls, so let’s go ahead with the mysterious young girl as a masked author to sell it.”
I didn’t quite get how people would know the author was a cute little girl if she was wearing a mask, but they published the award-winning story, which quickly became a best seller. The book was flying out of stores, and it soon shattered the one-million-copies-sold mark. It was adapted into a movie and a TV miniseries, and there was also a comic book adaptation. It became a phenomenon.
I was astounded.
My family didn’t know what to think.
“My son? Well… he used to be such a nice, ordinary boy. What can we do? The royalties are a billion yen! I mean, that’s twenty times his father’s salary!”
They were in shock.
Whenever I got on the train, the ads for my book were staring me in the face, the title printed in gigantic letters. And if I so much as set foot in a bookstore, I saw my book stacked up on the checkout counters like stalwart fortresses with big-name reviews on the covers.
“Little Miu is still in middle school, right? I wonder what she’s like. I bet she’s cute.”
“I heard she’s a rich kid from an old, aristocratic family. That’s why they can’t say who she really is.”
“She must have been raised by nannies since she was a baby. She’s probably never had to lift anything heavier than a pen.”
“Oh, definitely. She just screams ‘book girl.’ You just know she’s a delicate, innocent young lady. God, Miu, I want you so bad! Marry me!”
Whenever I heard people saying these things, I got so embarrassed it felt like I was suffocating. I only cared about getting away.
I’m so sorry, please don’t get mad at me, it was just a whim, my story’s not some great work of literature. They were just scribbles in my notes for class that somehow won an award. I’m really sorry. I could never hope to have “refreshing sensitivity.” It’s just the ramblings of a boring, wimpy little kid. The illustrious members of the judging panel were only trying to make a joke. They were just thinking, Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if a fourteen-year-old girl won the prize? Wouldn’t that be incredible PR material? And it would give the industry a real shot in the arm, too. I bet it would sell like crazy. That would make the publishers happy. They gave in to temptation. I have no talent whatsoever. Please, please forgive me, I’m so sorry.
I yearned to go to every last corner of Japan and throw myself at people’s feet to apologize, until finally it happened—the stress made me hyperventilate, and I passed out at school and got taken to the hospital. I was sobbing pathetically about how I couldn’t write novels anymore, and I even refused to go to school. I put my parents and my little sister through a lot.
Have I mentioned how embarrassing that year was?
That was how the mysterious genius, the masked young author, Miu Inoue, burned out after producing only one novel. I took my exams, passed them, and started high school, which is where I met a real “book girl”—an older girl named Tohko Amano.
Why did I start writing again?
Because I met Tohko under the brilliant white magnolia trees that day.
Chapter 1–Tohko Has Refined Tastes
“Gallico’s story feels like winter to me. It’s like the purity of falling snow melting on your tongue—the serenity you get from that coolness and ephemerality. It has that same beauty and desolation to it.” Tohko sighed with pleasure as she flipped through a collection of Paul Gallico’s stories.
We belonged to the Seijoh Academy book club, which met in the western corner of the school’s third floor.
As the day ended, the sun lit the room with a beguiling golden light the color of honey.
An old oak table stood in the middle of the tiny room, which was mainly used for storage and smelled of old paper and dust. Cardboard boxes were stacked to dizzying heights along the walls. There were also two steel bookshelves and a locker. That filled the room to bursting, so we stacked old books we had no space for on every available surface. If there was ever an earthquake, the towers of books would probably topple over and bury us alive.
Tohko was perched on a metal folding chair, her knees pulled up to her chest. It wasn’t a very modest way for her to sit. Her pleated skirt was almost wide open—but not quite. If she moved her legs even slightly she would be flashing me.
She rested a pale cheek on her bare knees and wound one arm around her legs so she could turn lovingly through the book with her slender fingers.
Her dark bangs fell across the white skin of her forehead and trailing braids fell over her shoulder to her hips. The whiteness of her skin made the black of her hair, her eyebrows, and her eyes stand out.
When she was quiet, Tohko seemed incredibly refined. Like a living doll.
But then… she slowly tore a page out of the book, stuffed it into her mouth, and started chewing it like a goat.
God, she’s eating it… That never gets any less surreal.
R-r-rip, crinkle, flupp.
Her slender throat made an adorable sound as she swallowed the page. She ripped out and ate another page, her placid expression transforming as her eyes closed with joy. She beamed.
“Gallico really is de-licious. Did you know he was born in New York? Everybody knows him for the movie The Poseidon Adventure and the Mrs. Harris series of children’s books, but if you ask me, his best story has to be The Snow Goose. It’s all about the poignant connection between two quiet souls, a lonely painter named Rhayader who lives in a lighthouse next to a marsh, and a girl named Fritha who appears one day carrying an injured white goose. Words are powerless to describe the deep affection they have for each other. Ah—their love is so pure!
“Got that, Konoha? You shouldn’t just ramble on and on. You have to carry the truly important emotions with you to the grave. It’s the struggle to not speak of things that gives them poignancy and beauty. The last scene makes me cry every time I read it. Gallico’s stories are like an exquisite sorbet, soothing your burning passion. It feels amazing, sliding sweetly down my throat! You’ve got to read Jennie and Snowflake, too. And if it’s not Sumiko Yagawa’s translation, don’t bother.”
I was at the lopsided table writing an improv story in a notebook with a mechanical pencil.
Words were spilling onto the page, so I kept my eyes down and coolly interjected, “It tastes like sorbet? Tohko, you’re a goblin. Writing is the only thing you can taste. How can you compare it to anything?”
Tohko pouted at me for that.
“Why not? I can imagine it just fine! I can say, ‘Oh, sorbet must taste like this!’ Besides, ‘goblin’ is a slur. I’m just a book girl: a pretty high school student like any other, who loves all the stories and literature of the world so intensely that she devours them.”
“I don’t think most high school girls rip pages out to nibble on, though. Or at least, you’re the only weirdo like that I ever heard of in the sixteen years I’ve been around.”
Tohko puffed her cheeks out even more. “You’re awful! How can you call a girl a weirdo to her face? That hurts. You look so nice on the surface, like you would keep roses at home and name them things like Nancy and Betty and take really good care of them, but I think you’re lacking a little in delicacy toward your elders.”
“Wait, you think I lack delicacy?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tohko grumbled. But her mood recovered almost immediately. She hopped out of her chair and leaned forward with a coy look in her eyes. “Well, never mind. My compassion is as vast as the Andromeda Galaxy, so I’ll overlook one or two rude comments from an upstart kid. More important, is my treat ready yet?” she asked excitedly.
She was such an uncomplicated person. If she were a cat, she would have been purring.
One year my senior, Tohko Amano is the president of the book club—and also a goblin who eats stories.
Instead of eating bread and drinking water, she gobbles up pages from books and any paper with writing on it.
One year ago, I don’t know how, this book girl with the long braids dragged me into the book club, and ever since then as soon as classes were over, she would pester me. “I’m hunnngryyy,” she says. “C’mon, write something. Pleeease?” And I slap together a poem or an essay for her.
Even now that it’s May and I’ve moved up to the second year, Tohko and I are still the only two people in the book club. Just the other day, Tohko was upset about the fact that not a single first-year student showed up.
“Take these, Konoha. This is a direct order from your president!”
And, lagging behind the times a little, she shoved some recruitment flyers into my hands. I passed them out, my face burning the whole time I stood outside the school gates, but it didn’t look like any new members were going to come.
I wonder if I can stay with this club if it’s just me and this freakish president.
Why am I in the book club anyway, of all things, after I swore I would never write another novel? I was supposed to be through with writing of any kind.
And now writing little snack stories for my weird goblin president isn’t even strange anymore. It’s become totally normal.
Tohko took a silver stopwatch from her pocket and showed it to me.
“Look, you only have five minutes left. Write an absolutely delicious snack for your beloved president. Gallico had a restrained, refreshing sweetness, so now I want something dripping with sugar. A poignant story would be great, too, but love stories should have happy endings, after all. Don’t do anything where the love interest dies from leukemia or a weak heart or in a plane crash or from choking on a strawberry mochi or anything like that.”
Plot twist—I’d make him run into the first girl he ever loved on the steps of the Diet Building and then have a box of strawberry mochi fall out of the sky and kill her.
Tohko leaned on the table, chin in her hand, grinning.
At first glance, she seemed like a low-key beauty, but when she was waiting for food, she became a full-blown pig and acted like a total brat. Her black eyes flashed with expectation.
“Mmm, I just love handwritten stories. gai and Soseki have a finely crafted flavor when you read them in books, but amateurs have their own charming naiveté. Especially when it’s handwritten. I feel as if I’m dipping my hands into a gurgling stream to take a drink. It’s like biting into a freshly picked tomato or cucumber or something! Even the little tastes of grit just blow my mind!”
So I write like tomatoes and cucumbers…
I wondered what she would do if I told her that two years ago I was that mysterious girl who won a prize for new authors and became a best seller.
But of course nothing would actually make me say that.
“Only two minutes left! One last push! You can do it!”
Tohko cheered me on. She angled her slender neck to peer up at me eagerly.
I got you now, Tohko. Things aren’t gonna go as smoothly as you think.
Just then we heard a voice.
“Hellooo, is anybody in? Ack!”
The moment the door opened, we heard a thud and someone fell into the room.
A girl was splayed out on the floor, her skirt flipped up in her fall, exposing her bear-print underwear for all to see. It occurred to me that my little sister had the exact same pair of underwear, but she was only just starting elementary school.
The girl picked herself up, groaning noisily. But as she reached out a hand, she brushed against one of the towers of books, which immediately collapsed on top of her, and she dove to the ground again.
“Muh… mah nothe (my nose)… mah nothe (my nose)…”
The girl was twitching slightly, her hands pressed to her nose. Tohko rushed over to her.
“Don’t look, Konoha!”
She quickly fixed the girl’s skirt to hide her underwear, but I’d already seen it. Besides, I wasn’t such a perv that I would get aroused by bear-print underwear.
“Are you all right?”
Tohko put an arm around the girl and helped her up. As soon as she was on her feet, the girl crumpled back down into a little ball and turned a bright, undignified red.
“Y-yeth, thankth. I fall down a lot. I’m really good at falling down in empty rooms. Don’t worry, I’m used to it.”
I wouldn’t call that being “good” at something.
“Um, my name is Chia Takeda. I’m a first-year student in the second class. I came to see the book club for a super important request.”
She was a small, chubby girl with a cloud of hair that fell to the tops of her shoulders. She was sort of reminiscent of a miniature dachshund or a toy poodle. Something like that.
Could she be a prospective new member? Had the leaflets Tohko made me hand out actually paid off? If so, that was great. If we got a junior member, I could foist Tohko’s snack duty off on her.
As soon as I had latched on to this faint hope, Takeda clasped her hands together and beseeched us in a voice packed with resolve, “Please grant me my love!”
My mouth fell open.
“Uh, you know we’re the book club, right?”
Takeda turned to me and nodded firmly. “I do! I saw your mailbox!”
“Our mailbox… ?” I had no clue what she was talking about.
“There’s a mailbox tucked under a tree in a back corner of the schoolyard. It looks like it’s hiding! A sign on it says ‘We will grant you your love. Interested parties, please send us a letter. By, the Book Club’ and it was definitely like a thud! or a zzzap! or anyway, like a sign from heaven. I figured I didn’t have time to write a letter, so I ran straight here.”
Despite my astonishment, I suddenly understood what had happened. “Tohko!”
No one but her would do something so outrageous.
Tohko laid a hand on Takeda’s shoulder and smiled at her. “It’s a good thing you came. I’m the club president, Tohko Amano. You just leave everything to us.”
I stood up behind her and shouted, “Hold on! Are you including me in that ‘us’?”
“Yes, I am. The entire book club is going to do everything they can to support little Chia in her romance.”
“Gosh, I really appreciate it!”
“Are you kidding me? Urgggh.”
“In exchange, we have one condition,” Tohko informed her gently, clamping a hand over my mouth. “Once your love has been achieved, we want you to turn in a full love report, thoroughly detailing how it all happened.”
“Oh no, really? A report? I’m pretty awful at writing.”
“That’s fine. All you have to do is write down the things that happened and how you felt, exactly the way you experienced it. As long as you try your very best, the honest words of someone who doesn’t usually write can inspire the heart and the appetite so much more than works that rely on technical mastery. Write down your every thought proudly and give us a delectable story—I mean, report. Oh, and you can’t use a computer! You have to write it by hand on clean paper. Promise?”
Tohko linked her slender finger with Takeda’s, sealing an exuberant pinky-promise.
So that was her goal all along.
Unsatisfied with having only the snacks that I wrote for her, Tohko was so food-obsessed that she had masterminded the idea to set up a relationship advice box and extort steamy reports from the people who came for help.
If all she had done was think it up, that would have been fine. But putting it so brazenly into practice required a particularly Tohko-esque reason.
This is why you have to watch your back around book girls.
Their minds are full of literature without any concept of reality, so if you take your eyes off them, there’s no telling what mischief they’ll get into. They’ll drag other people into their schemes without even a twinge of regret.
“Okay! I’ll try real hard and write lots of reports!”
I just couldn’t believe how submissive Takeda’s personality was (though if it weren’t, she never would have come to this questionable club after seeing that shady mailbox). Her eyes sparkled as she gazed up at Tohko. I could just imagine her thinking, She’s so amazing and trustworthy!
Puffing up her flat-as-a-table A-cup (give or take) chest importantly, Tohko said, “Heh-heh. You just put your mind at ease. We’ve studied romance novels old and new, the world over. We’re love experts, but also masters of the written word. We’ll write the best love letter the world has ever seen for you, Chia. Konoha here can handle it.”
Fed up with Tohko’s unflagging hunger for fine dining, I had been playing dumb this whole time, but that got me.
“I’ll have Konoha think up something good. He’s our top guy; one of his letters will shoot an arrow straight through the heart of your beloved, Chia.”
“I didn’t agree to this, Tohko! I’ve never written a love letter.”
Tohko covered my mouth for this last part, so I’m sure all Takeda heard were muffled cries.
“Konoha is our love letter specialist. He’s written hundreds of them, and he thinks you’ll be impressed. Konoha is a champ. He made it to the final round of the Adatara Literature of Love competition.”
What kind of no-name competition is that? It sounds like something even locals wouldn’t have heard of.
“Oh wow, that’s amazing! It’s so exciting that such a great writer is going to write my letters for me!”
Hey, I’m not a writer!
Well, I mean, I guess I was a writer… and I was a best seller… But still! Now I’m just an ordinary high school student, just Tohko’s snack-maker, and there’s no way I could write love letters for someone else.
While I was lost in thought, the conversation wrapped up without me.
“Thank you, Konoha!”
“Sure thing. It’ll be a cinch, right, Konoha?”
And so I pretended to be a girl—again—and wrote the love letters.
After Takeda left, Tohko let out a little sob as she ate the improv story I had written for her.
“Oh, grooooss! A box of strawberry mochi fell on his first love and killed her! Blech, blech! This tastes weird! It’s like miso soup with jelly beans in it! Blech! Ppth! Soooo gross!”
Excerpted from Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime by Nomura, Mizuki Copyright © 2010 by Nomura, Mizuki. Excerpted by permission.
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