Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 15, 2011

The Lake (2011), by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Michael Emmerich

Oh no!  I thought, as I turned the first page of Banana Yoshimoto’s novel, The Lake, not another dead Mom! I nearly put it aside there and then, but fortunately this book turned out to have a different focus to my last literary misadventure, though one that bemused me all the same…

It’s about a young woman called Chihiro who develops a curiously hesitant and mostly chaste romance with a young man called Nakajima.  Both living alone and isolated in Tokyo, they notice each other from their apartment windows and – almost telepathically in the beginning – start up a friendship.

The novel is shadowed throughout by the sense of absent families and in particular the recent death of Chihiro’s mother.  Her mother was a bar hostess, and while it’s not explicit, it seems she was running some kind of ‘respectable’ brothel.  She was the mistress of Chihiro’s father, a businessman, but marriage was never countenanced.  He does have a vaguely fatherly relationship with Chihiro but it’s not close.   Chihiro is unembarrassed by her parents’ unconventional relationship, but has moved away from her father and any support he might have provided because she wants her independence.

Nakajima’s mother is dead too.  However he  has also been through a traumatic experience in his childhood which has blighted his life.  He can’t bear to be touched, is obsessively tidy, and doesn’t eat properly because he is detached from his own bodily needs.  He’s highly intelligent, (doing post-graduate research into genetics) but he’s an emotional cripple. The traumatic event is not revealed until the end until Chihiro visits the mystical lake and finds out what happened to him.

Narrated by Chihiro, the story plots the fledgling romance, and it’s obviously pitched at the female YA market.   There’s a lot of analysing of emotions and the boyfriend’s every word and deed, and there’s thinking about the future in a naïve kind of way.  Thematically, it feels immature, and self-absorbed.  The focus is on groping towards identity; trying to manage grief without having much in the way of emotional resources; uncertainty about a future career as an artist in a commercial culture; and trying to resolve an inadequate relationship with an unsatisfactory father.  The complicating factor, that the young woman has fallen for a person who is psychologically damaged is mildly interesting, but the pathos of his experience as a little boy isn’t fleshed out enough and the resolution is absurdly optimistic.  (Lonely girl finds love by finding someone who really needs her; traumatised male finally talks about his problem and feels better).  While sorting out the enigmatic romance in this naïve way may well appeal to adolescent readers, it seems to me that it betrays an author too inexperienced to have researched or understood the psychology of her characters.  Yoshimoto is badly out of her depth.

These quibbles aside, the book is quite well done.  The translation is good: the prose is restrained and in places stylistically quite elegant.  It’s not too long, and the plot is reasonably engaging in the sense that the reader becomes intrigued by the mystery of Nakajima’s trauma.  But in the company of the other books longlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize, this tale of adolescent introspection dressed up as a surreal mystery looks very slight indeed.

The dust cover is plastered with praise from assorted august critics from the US (the New Yorker, the Washington Post etc) and Google tells me that Yoshimoto is a phenomenon in Japan and elsewhere.  But I think she is the literary equivalent of a Smurf… a triumph of pop marketing.

David Maine at PopMatters found it ‘underwhelming’, but Baley Peterson at The Reader’s Book Blog thinks this book shows Yoshimoto to be ‘a master of the big picture, evoking emotion with sparse words set against the stark landscape of Japan’s countryside’.  Bookmunch is ambivalent: he thinks it’s dark and hypnotic but repetitive, and that a knowledge of Japanese culture (which I don’t have) might help one understand the nuances.  Our Matt, from the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize Team has that understanding of Japanese culture, so read his review at A Novel Approach for a completely different perspective to mine!

I also stumbled across an interesting essay in a book by Rebecca L. Copeland called Woman critiqued: translated essays on Japanese women’s writing.  It’s an academic essay, exploring Yoshimoto’s place in ‘girl culture’,  the way women’s writing is related to comic book writing, and the way it’s marketed and critiqued in Japan – especially the mismatch between critical reception of Yoshimoto and her popularity.  It’s fascinating stuff.

There’s also a revealing interview with Yoshimoto at BookSlut…and Tony at Tony’s Reading List liked it too!

Author: Banana Yoshimoto
Title: The Lake
Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich
Publisher: Melville House 2011
ISBN: 9781933633770
Source: Personal library

Fishpond: The Lake

For descriptions of all the books (with links for where to buy them)
and all the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize Team’s reviews (updated as we write them),
click here.


  1. I was underwhelmed by Kitchen and wasn’t in any hurry to read more. Now between this review and the one at BuriedinPrint, I think I can safely take a pass.


    • Hi Laura, good to hear from you, thanks for dropping by:)
      Do you have the URL for BuriedinPrint please?


      • Hi Lisa, sorry I didn’t leave it before. This is the post I’m referring to:

        I could have sworn you commented on it, hmm … anyway, she kind of liked it but the review didn’t convince me.


      • I just had to stop by and admit my idiocy. I knew I’d seen a comment from you somewhere today (well, yesterday by the time you read this), but lo and behold it was on my own review of Kitchen. I loved your line, “I think she is the literary equivalent of a Smurf…a triumph of marketing.”


        • *chuckle* Cute but ephemeral…
          I read somewhere that this author thinks she’s going to win a Nobel Prize for Literature.
          Only someone who’s never read any of it could say that…


  2. […] Lisa) Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke (Me; Fay) The Lake – Banana YOSHIMOTO (Me; Lisa) GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]


  3. I’ve always been more of a liker than a lover of Yoshimoto (and have whinged on many an occasion about her trite Americanised dialogue). I’m not sure this is one I’ll be rushing out to buy, keen as I am to bulk up my personal J-Lit library.

    Disclosure – I am also still bitter after a promised review copy failed to eventuate a while back ;)


    • Oh no, we can’t have bitterness in blogdom! If you send me your address privately to [email addresss now deleted to discourage spam] I’ll ask Sue to post it on to you after she’s read it and reviewed it, ok?


      • Oh Lisa … you don’t need to worry about sending this one to me. I have it. Being a bit of a fan of Japanese fiction, I did buy this one.

        (BTW I saw a copy in a local bookstall here for $15! I’m not sure how this little store do the prices they do but there books are stored higgledy piggledy – like some 2nd hand shops – so you never know what they really have.)


      • If you have a spare copy you don’t want – I don’t want to take anyone’s personal copy…


        • No problem, Tony, this is not a book I am ever going to re-read, and I would enjoy sending it to you and then reading your take on it on your blog. So email me that address!


          • Yay! I’ve e-mailed you :)


            • I’ve just posted my review – luckily, I liked it a lot :)


  4. I ve only read the kitchen by her and I did like that but this book had lot hype when it came out lisa so i was weary of it for that reason it may not be one I get to as my library or local book shop hasn’t it in stock all the best stu


    • I wouldn’t worry about it, Stu. If it gets shortlisted I’d be rather surprised…


  5. Oh, how funny: I’d saved your thoughts on this to read later, only to find that Laura was mentioning my post about this book. It’s true: I wasn’t trying to convince anyone to read this one, but I couldn’t tell how much of that was my annoyance at the jacket’s spoiler and how much was true disappointment.

    I absolutely *loved* Kitchen and I’ve read everything that’s been translated, so I definitely have a set of expectations when it comes to her work. That could also mean that I unfairly expect “another Kitchen” every time, too.

    What I did really enjoy about this one? The scenes around her journey, and the characters of the brother and sister. I feel as though those tapped into the magic that I felt in some of her earlier works (np and Amrita were good too).

    The dimensions and dynamics of the “romantic” relationship in this one did feel a little “obvious” to me, too, but I guess it’s also true that a lot of women find themselves in situations like that, which seem “obvious” to their friends and families looking on, but they are seeing something quite different while they’re living it.


    • It’s a surprisingly small world, the world of LitBlogs, isn’t it?!

      I agree, there are aspects of this novel to enjoy, but the problem for me is its inclusion in the longlist. I mean, a prize of this significance demands books that are more than just enjoyable to read. I can think of many books I’ve reviewed here on this blog that are enjoyable to read, but disqualify themselves for a major prize because there’s no compelling or enduring significance to their themes.

      Whereas Tahmina Anam’s The Good Muslim, for example, isn’t just about fraught relationships and an enjoyable book to read: it’s also about an issue of international contemporary interest, how to reconcile modernity with Islam.

      If Yoshimoto had explored the reasons why a cult might emerge in the Japanese context, that would have been more interesting than simply observing the effect that it has on subsequent relationships IMO. But then, Murakami has already done that, I think…


  6. […] Yoshimoto‘s The lake (Japan) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. She’s not overly impressed by it, stating that this […]


  7. Small bookish worlds, yes!

    I do think there is a little more to the novel than appears to be the case on the surface. I think her style consistently suggests that the works can be more easily dismissed than is warranted just because it seems so simple, so easy.

    But I think the theme of identity (not only in terms of what happens to that when significant relationships are stripped away, particularly at a young age…trying not to be TOO spoilery here…but also in terms of finding one’s self through art/work…or NOT finding oneself as the case may be) is an important one, which works across and through her narratives.

    And in relationship in this, the layering of, for instance, one character’s losing her voice (in some ways) and another character struggling to express herself through art, offers something more for the reader to consider beyond the topical elements of this particular story. It’s layering in a novel that always catches my eye.

    However, I can still see your point (and you’ve obviously read more of the longlisted books/authors than I) that your concern resides with its inclusion amongst and alongside other more complex literary works on this longlist. So quite likely that is the sticking point, but I do hope that nobody dismisses her work as a whole on that basis.


    • I wouldn’t want anyone to dismiss a writer on the basis of any of my reviews, that’s why if I don’t like a book, I try to find other reviewers who do. Reading is a matter of personal taste, and one of the things that’s great about the web is that we can link to alternative opinions (whereas in the press, all you get is what the ‘expert’ thinks LOL).

      But yes, you’re right, I do expect a book longlisted for a major prize to have a more significant theme that this one.


  8. […] of A Novel Approach and Lisa of ANZLitLovers, on our Man Asian team, have also reviewed it and are worth reading for their different […]


  9. Very insightful review, Lisa! Sorry you didn’t like Banana Yoshimoto’s ‘The Lake’ as much as you had hoped to. This sentence from your review – “The dust cover is plastered with praise from assorted august critics from the US (the New Yorker, the Washington Post etc)” – made me smile :) These days I just ignore the critics, because most of the time I don’t agree with them. I loved both the Yoshimoto books I read though. Will read ‘The Lake’ soon and see whether I feel the same as you or otherwise. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I look forward to your review, because you often see something in a book that I have missed:)


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