Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Goodbye, Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto

“From the time she was born Tsugumi was ridiculously frail, and she had a whole slew of ailments and defects. Her doctors announced that she would die young, and her family began preparing for the worst. Of course everyone around her spoiler her like you wouldn’t believe. Her mother carted her around to hospitals all across Japan, not sparing any effort, offering up every ounce of her strength to try and extend Tsugumi’s life even just a little. And so as Tsugumi toddled her unsteady way towards adulthood, she developed a personality that was just as pushy and insolent as it could be.”
The narrator of this story is Maria, Tsugumi’s cousin. Despite Tsugumi’s unpleasant personality, the two grow to be very close friends. Goodbye, Tsugumi is the story of the last summer they spend at the seaside town where they were born and grew up. Maria returns after having moved to Tokyo with her family, and Tsugumi is stoon to leave because her parents are going to sell their inn and open a pension in the mountains.

It’s not surprising, given the title, that this story is about saying goodbye in several different ways. Goodbye, Tsugumi is filled with bittersweet nostalgia and with a deep awareness of the passage of time. Look at this passage, for example:
Summer was coming. Yes, summer was about to begin. A season that would come and go only once, and never return again. All of us understood that very well, and yet we would probably just pass our days the way we always had. And this made the tickling of time feel slightly more tense than in the old days, infused it with a hint of distress. We could all feel this as we sat there that evening, together. We could feel it so clearly that it made us sad, and yet at the same time we were extremely happy.
But there are, of course, issues other than the summer coming to an end at stake in this story. There’s growing up, and becoming distant from people who once filled your whole life. And there’s mortality, as Tsugumi’s frail health makes her, and those who surround her, deeply aware of death, and constantly unsure of whether each passing day will be her last.

So what Goodbye, Tsugumi is is a lovely book about vulnerability and change. And despite the fact that one of the main characters is a teenager who might not live to see another year, the result is not nearly as bleak as you’d expect. But worry not, it’s also not artificially optimistic or cheerful – the tone is absolutely perfect.

I think my favourite thing about Goodbye, Tsugumi was the narrator’s voice. Maria sounds so intimate and nostalgic. Sometimes she’s funny, sometimes she sounds sad, and she’s always so insightful and sincere. There isn’t all that much of a plot to this book, but unlike what can sometime happen with more character-oriented novels, this one isn't slow-going in the least. I read it for the read-a-thon and I think it was a perfect choice. The focus of the story is the characters, their relationships and how they change, but it’s told in a way that keeps you eagerly turning the pages until the end.

This might sound odd, but the tone of Goodbye, Tsugumi reminded me a little of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books. And I mean this as a compliment, of course. Reading this book made me forget all about my previous disappointing experience with Banana Yoshimoto. So Kitchen, here I come.

One more memorable passage:
Right around the time when the hustle and bustle of preparations for the festival take a hold of the town, all of a sudden you find yourself noticing that autumn had begun to weave itself into the rhythm of your days. The sun is still just as strong as before, but the breeze blowing in off the sea has turned just the tiniest bit softer, and the sand has cooled. Now the rain that quietly drenches the boats ranges along the beach carries the damp, misty smell of a cloudy sky. You realize that summer has turned its back on you.
This is my third book read for the challenge, so officially I've completed it. But since there's still plenty of time, I want to see if I manage to read another book or two. I'm enjoying myself too much to stop :)


Anonymous said...

I hope to get this book. it is a lovely review :)

Nymeth said...

Thank you, Veens :) I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Bellezza said...

I've only read Kitchen by Banana, and not even heard of this book by her. However, that's not a surprise as I keep learning more and more about Japanese literature through the wonderful reviews written here.

Nymeth, thanks for bringing this to my attention. You write such compelling reviews it makes me want to go out and buy the book Right now!

Nymeth said...

Thank you, Bellezza! I really want to read Kitchen next. I probably won't get to it in time for this challenge, but it's one to keep in mind for next time (I hope you'll host it again!)

Bellezza said...

Nymeth, I'd love to host it again! I really appreciate your participation, reviews and enthusiasm...it's readers like you who help expand our knowledge of literature.

I enjoyed Kitchen very much, even though I found it particularly sad. It made me feel Banana Yoshimoto must have suffered much in her life to be able to write of grief so eloquently.