A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Nanase cannot remember when she first realised she could read people’s minds, but not once during her eighteen years has she ever questioned her particularly unusual ability. Yet, working as a live-in maid, she is inevitably drawn into the lives, thoughts and desires of her employers, with dangerous and at times hilarious consequences. From the sexual rapaciousness of her first boss to the grime and stench of the house where she works next and her third employer’s inability to accept she’s no longer young, Nanase’s adventures are a picaresque journey into the inner sanctum of the lives and psyches of ordinary Japanese people.
I have a huge soft spot for Japanese fiction (in translation, I regret to say) so was delighted when Alma Books sent me this one for review. So I’m pleased to say that it didn’t let me down as it has that distinctive Japanese feel of observation and clarity, and a very unusual central character, upon whom the whole plot hangs. I also feel there aren’t enough picaresque novels in the world so this one was an added pleasure for being within that genre.
Besides, any book that starts with this glorious sentence that sets you up only to dash you down again in Byronic fashion gets my vote:
Red flowers were blooming in the front yard, but Nanase had no idea what they were: the names of the flowers did not interest her.
Aha and yes! I’m right there on the side of the heroine at that crucial point as it brought a smile to my lips and an overwhelming desire to read on. All first sentences should be like that.
Nanase herself is a fascinating character in spite of being only eighteen at the start of the book and she has a very adult voice, possibly because of her gift, or disability depending on your point of view. I enjoyed the way she struggled to keep her mind-reading skills secret, even to the point of being prepared to allow people to go mad or to die rather than give up her own private world, as this allows the darkness inherent in what might seem a desirable talent to take centre stage. At the same time, she maintains a kind of innocence as an Everyman character, which allows her and the author to describe events and people with a crystal-clear observational finesse. Indeed, the whole novel has the feel of a morality play for our times and, at each turn, the reader is made to imagine what we ourselves might do under such circumstances. It also allows for the terrible gap between what we as people think and what we actually say or do particularly in the presence of others to be revealed in its true starkness. Or perhaps that is just me?… In any case, Nanase is witness to it all, like a kind of ever-present and very human god.
I also enjoyed the way that Nanase begins to explore her gift as she travels from house to house in her work as maid, and the way it entwines her for good or ill in the lives of those she works for. What she learns from the minds of others is rarely uplifting, and it is this contrast between Nanase’s strange and deadly innocence, and the sullied experience of others that provides much of the tension in this novel. Each chapter is in essence a complete short story of her encounters with one particular family before she moves on to the next; it is the main character and the set-up that remain constant as each small tale comes into play. In fact, if forced at gunpoint to describe this book’s genre, I would say it was a masterly blending of novel and short story in a manner that I don’t believe (though I’m certainly prepared to be proved wrong) has been done before in the mainstream literary world.
Whilst there is humour in the story, there is not as much as the blurb would have us think, and the overwhelming feeling is the starkness of life and how the darkness is just there at the edge of our vision. Nanase’s virtual encounters with death, particularly as she mind-reads those around her, are both traumatic and gripping. Here she is witnessing at a distance the death of Yoko, one of her employers:
For one moment Yoko’s field of vision went pitch black, then a panorama unfolded in her consciousness. Five seconds later her consciousness began to diffuse. At the far side of the widening crack lay death.
Nanase screamed. This was the first time she had seen death. Death was the colour of nothingness. The colour of nothingness was neither black nor even the colour of empty space, but, quite simply, the colour of nothingness. It was a colour so frightening that Nanase feared it might drive her insane. All alone in the house, she stood by the kitchen table, fists clenched and flinging her arms about violently, as if to expel a nightmare before her eyes. And all the while she kept on screaming hysterically.
Despite this, there are times when Nanase makes a positive effort to put things right for people using what she knows, though it may not always work out in the way she anticipated, and sometimes the good she does is carried out for reasons of her own rather than through any sense of compassion. But in that too she only shows her very real humanity and she responds to her failures with touching acceptance:
I have a lot to learn about the complexities of the human mind, Nanase thought wryly, as she pulled the quilt up to her chin.
I can’t bring this review to a close without mentioning the particular pleasures in the chapter where Nanase is working for an abstract artist whose mind uses shapes rather than words to describe and interpret his environment:
When Tenshu sat down at the dinner table, the objects before him assumed an odd assortment of geometric shapes. His rice bowl became a chrome yellow trapezoid with a thick white border; his boiled fish in its oblong plate turned into a honeycomb in shades of brown.
Magnificent really, and so it continues. Indeed this was one of my favourite chapters/stories, in spite of the rather harsh and devastating ending it has. At the same time, Nanase’s final opinion of the artistic temperament made me smile:
The erratic dynamism of the composition was no more than an expression of his warped self-absorption. He painted every Sunday just so he could wallow in the smugness of his ego.
Of course, this may very well be the essence of creative instinct, Nanase considered wryly.
How very true of writers too, I would add … Oh, the book’s ending is fabulous as well and fits the character perfectly. So, all in all, this one’s a gem of a very unusual cut and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Maid by Yasutaka Tsutsui, Alma Books 2010, ISBN: 978-1-84688-099-5
[Anne is far too embarrassed about being a domestic slob ever to hire any kind of maid but always envies those who do. Perhaps because of this, she carries a large secret supply of her own dirty laundry everywhere.]