Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki and Polly Barton (translator)

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Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki and Polly Barton (translator)

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Never has a story of a woman obsessed with a house been so entertaining – nor so educational, in this slip of a novel fresh from Japan. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: January 2017
Publisher: Pushkin Press
ISBN: 9781782272700

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Murakami, and (long before the film) Endo's Silence. That's my limit as regards contemporary Japanese writing. But now there's Tomoka Shibasaki, and her noted work Spring Garden. Which, make no mistake, is definitely Japanese. For instance, if I told you it starts with a man looking up to watch his female neighbour on her balcony, and concerns obsession, you could well think it was his about her. But no – perhaps only in the west is the gaze so male. The obsession is very much hers here, and it – and the novel – concern a singular house. And the very singular country it lives in, and the changes it is going through…

He is Taro, and if we're told what he actually does in his office job he's very much the type of character where we instantly forget. He's quite feckless – we learn of him liking lolling around doing little, and he refuses commitment and abhors fuss. He could never live with anyone else, which is why he's a singleton. She might just as well have ended up being known by the sign of the Chinese zodiac her flat is given, like her neighbour Mrs Snake, but eventually proves to be Nishi, and she's here because she recognised the posh, exotic, light blue mansion abutting their apartment complex as once belonging to a celebrity couple who made an influential photobook about their life there. She has that photobook, and is rapt in how the building looks there, and is worried about how it might look now.

And changes in buildings, if nothing else, soon leach to Taro's world. On his commute he learns to recognise vacant buildings, and slowly realises just how his world is evolving. When he looks at nature, too, he sees certain wasps and other insects utilise temporary accommodation – what look to all intents and purposes like a permanent house, but aren't. It's blatantly why his flat is about to be demolished, for one. But before I belabour the subtext of this book, I have to point out it's by no means all social commentary, and does have two likeable people and a quietly intriguing premise overlaying it.

Yes, if you come to these pages looking for a western story of obsession, you might not think this goes quite far enough. But I liked this. It showed me a man with multiple chances to take from the tradition around him, and ignoring it. He can eat out cheaply, as he does twice with Nishi, or he can eat rural specialities sent him in the post as gifts, but no – he prefers the ready meal. There is a bygone world under his feet – buried rivers under the roadways of his suburb – that he has lost sight of. He has a particular link with the generations before him, but cannot quite get a grasp of how Japan is progressing.

There was a bit of me too that could not grasp everything here – certainly one key scene just left a BIG question mark – but I really was thankful for this read, and not just because I really didn't get on with Murakami. I can see why this book won an award of some kind back in Japan, which I assume is for what I immediately found here – the easy, measured and literate balance between routine plot and artful subtext. This could have been clever-clever, but is only that as opposed to just clever if you take against what seems a huge narrative switch late on. As I have come to trust the editors at these publishers over the years I am looking forward to their other one-sitting modern Japanese reads.

I must thank them for my review copy.

Tokyo Hearts - A Japanese Love Story by Renae Lucas-Hall will take you to the land of the rising sun – but it does show how few postcards from that edge of the world we see published here. You might also appreciate The Insect Farm by Stuart Prebble.

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Buy Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki and Polly Barton (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki and Polly Barton (translator) at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki and Polly Barton (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki and Polly Barton (translator) at Amazon.com.


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