Friday 26 June 2009
Friends, the hellish hot heat in Toronto is addling my brain. I tried to write a post about Akira Yoshimura's wonderful novel Shipwrecks yesterday and was just too zoned out. I woke up later in the day when I heard that Michael Jackson, the soundtrack of my childhood, had died but that was exactly the wrong kind of waking up for writing book reviews. I ate a bowlful of chocolate chip cookies and then spent hours chatting with similarly startled friends who consoled themselves and me by teaching me how to do the moonwalk.
But about the novel in question. My friend Vee suggested this book to me years ago and I've had it in my jealous possession for a long time, but you know me and my neuroses - I basically have to let a book simmer for a few years and can only choose it if I look at it only out of the corner of my mental eye. Direct eye contact leads to shame and self-loathing and the need to hide in an Ellis Peters or P.G. Wodehouse novel or something.
In any case, Shipwrecks was worth the wait. The cover sensationalizes the story quite unnecessarily, loudly proclaiming that this is "A THRILLING TALE OF MURDER AND RETRIBUTION SET ON THE WILD SEACOAST OF MEDIEVAL JAPAN." Wow! I expected pirates and people being strung up and blood everywhere and lots of weeping and wailing and maybe even some supernatural stuff, a la From Dusk Till Dawn.
In fact, this book is a very quiet one which tells the story of young Isaku's hard scrabble life by the sea and how he, his family, and his tiny village spend literally all their time trying to draw enough sustenance out of the sea and the barren rocks to survive. Many people send their children or spouses off to be indentured labourers for years at a time as the only alternative to the entire family starving to death.
The only respite the village ever gets from their horrible life, which they cling both tenderly and tenaciously to - their love of their land is personal and ancient and profound and therefore impossible to abandon in favour of more hospitable living conditions elsewhere - is O-fune-sama. O-fune-sama refers to the shipwrecks that sometimes occur on the village's shoreline, as the result of the sharp reefs hidden beneath the water and the village's policy of luring ships in during storms by keeping fires burning on the beach. When ships founder there, the villagers pillage the ship and use everything on board; they also kill any crew members so that word of their practice won't leak out. Isaku, at 10 years old, witnesses and benefits from the village's first O-fune-sama in 8 years but disaster isn't long in following their new found prosperity...
What I think I loved most about this book is how gently Yoshimura treats his characters. They do unspeakable things but he completely normalizes the human tendency to do absolutely anything to survive without either condoning or distancing himself from it. Although told in the third person, the perspective is so convincingly from the point of view of the villagers that I began to feel the desperation of their hunger and separation from indentured relatives, and their horrified powerlessness when faced with the repercussions of taking such morbid advantage of O-fune-sama.
I think I've run out of mental steam again. Back to dozing in the overheated bookstore while customers move in slow motion around me.