Growing up is hard to do

Two broken characters bond and heal their wounds on the way to adulthood.
The Lake. Banana Yoshimoto. Translated by Michael Emmerich. Melville. 188 pages. $23.95.

There are times when life seems especially precarious and uncertain, and in these moments we are tempted to linger in perpetual childhood. But as illuminated by the two odd, broken characters in Banana Yoshimoto’s haunting new novel, the freedom and responsibility of adulthood remains the smarter path.

Typical for Yoshimoto, whose debut novel Kitchen was a near-instant hit, the novel’s prose is upbeat and generally amiable, here delivered in the journal-like first-person narration of Chihiro, an almost 30-year-old Tokyo mural painter. She and her pseudo-boyfriend, Nakajima, a genetics student, are the ghostly and enigmatic main characters, and enter the story mired in grief from the death of their mothers. The plot easily treads water as it unhurriedly reveals how this young couple, who memorably meet after observing each other through adjacent apartment windows, have come to exist in a sort of numb, juvenile cocoon.

Continual references to childhood and childlikeness not so subtly drive the point home, such as Chihiro’s continual observations of such characteristics as the “childish fullness” of Nakajima’s cheeks, or that he “cried like a child” and looks at her “with the eyes of a boy in elementary school.” When she thinks of her parents — her father a small-town notable and her mom the Mama-san of a hostess club — she notes they, too, were like children together, and also describes herself as “still a child.” Chihiro appears to view the root cause of life’s problems as societal expectation, to which she saw her parents succumb and from which she attempted to escape by moving to the more anonymous Tokyo after high school. Thus, she also constantly observes facades, from how her dad tries to be the playboy but “it’s obvious that it’s just a pose,” to her mother’s plastic surgery.

She beautifully describes her mother’s duality, mirrored in herself, how on one side she was “a woman of the world” and on the other “extremely delicate, like a big, soft flower nodding gently on its stem, looking as if the slightest breeze would scatter its petals.”

Chihiro and Nakajima develop a physically isolated yet emotionally nurturing relationship; they sleep next to each other, feed each other and look after one another but rarely go out and don’t have sex. Together they attempt to recover from their losses, and in Nakajima’s case, from what is rather perfunctorily revealed to be childhood trauma at the hands of an unnamed cult, one that echoes Aum Shinrikyo (called Aleph since 2000), perpetrators of the 1995 Tokyo Subway sarin nerve gas attack.

Only after a bizarre visit to a mysterious lake and conversations with the ghostly people who live there are Chihiro and Nakajima able to cautiously embrace inspiration to live as free adults unconfined by the past. “You don’t necessarily have to want to become an adult; it happens as a matter of course, as you go, making choices,” Chihiro eventually realizes, as the novel becomes infused with subtle notes of redemption. “The important thing, I think, is to choose for yourself.” When they make that choice, time begins to flow, and the book can come to its simple but touching end.