Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Michael Emmerich

In August, I went to see a few readings at the Edinburgh Book Festival. At the checkout counter (purchasing a book. Of course.) I struck up a conversation with the sales girl, Clare, and got to explaining the concept behind my MSc dissertation (the main character has narcolepsy and therefore much of the story is told through her dreams). On that basis, she recommended the work of Hiromi Kawakami, a Japanese writer who often incorporates dreams into her writing. And so I picked up Manazuru, the only book by Kawakami available at the library.


What’s it about?

Manazuru, a seaside town with a mystical allure that protagonist Kei can’t ignore. 12 years after her husband Rei mysteriously disappeared, her daughter is growing into a young woman, and her longtime boyfriend is pulling away. Kei finds herself drawn to Manazuru, feeling it may hold the answers to her questions: what really happened to Rei? What does it mean to be “close” to someone? Who are the ghosts that follow her around, and why have they become more apparent lately?

Manazuru is a love story, but not in the traditional sense. The love of Kei’s life is absent, and, as in Nadja, it is this person’s absence that actually magnifies his presence. Twelve years and Kei hasn’t been able to accept Rei’s disappearance, to assume he is dead, to reassume her maiden name.

What did I think?

Replete with apt metaphorical imagery, the story unfolds like a series of dreams, flitting from scene to scene depending where Kei’s mind wanders. At times, however, Kawakami’s prose feels marred by an inadequate translation, and towards the end there is an over-reliance on adverbs. Main character Kei is complex and not always sympathetic. Her changes are subtle and finely-wrought. While much of the imagery is poetic, the pacing sometimes suffers because of it. This novel is very much a psychological story; most of the “action” happens in Kei’s head, in her way of looking at things, in how she relates to herself and those close to her.

Much of Kei and Rei’s story develops through a series of flashbacks, and their interactions are often erotic, but not bogged down by too much detail. Their relationship is very much an emotional one, blurred around the edges like a dream, and Kawakami does well making this distinction.

It is less remarkable, the act of love, in reality than when it is imagined. It is sticky, noisy, and however lewd the act may be, in the end it all comes down to more or less the same thing. However extraordinary the position, however fiercely we hurl ourselves together, it comes to seem that we are only mimicking forms that we have seen before somewhere.

There is more complexity in our feelings.

Manazuru is a poignant rumination on what it means to be a part of a family: what it means to be mother, daughter, wife. What it means to love and be loved. The text experiments with form, bravely delving inside Kei’s head, blurring the lines between reality and imagination.

My rating: 3.5/5

(only thing keeping it from a 4 is the translation).