I decided that Banana Yoshimoto would be a good choice for this Category in the Reading Challenge. She’s one of my favorite authors, she’s Japanese, and the Seattle Public Library has a good selection of her books in its catalog.
I picked Asleep because it was one I hadn’t read, there were no holds on it, and none of my current holds were moving fast enough.
Right after I placed the hold, I discovered that I’d been misremembering the Category. It’s the main character, not the author, who should be a different ethnicity than me. I decided to go with it anyway, since all of Banana Yoshimoto’s books are set in Japan.
If I’d realized I’d been misremembering the Category earlier, I might have picked out a different book, since Asleep is a collection of three novellas, with three main characters. If I’d realized the book was on the shelf at the Central Library, I might have picked it up during a lunch break, instead of placing a hold. Oh, well.
Shirakawa Yofune, by Banana Yoshimoto, was published in 1989. It was translated into English, by Michael Emmerich, as Asleep, in 2000.
The first story is named Night and Night‘s Travelers.
Shibami, the main character and narrator, finds the draft of a letter she’d written to a girl named Sarah. It brings on a flood of memories. The story jumps back and forth in time.
In high school, Shibami and her brother, Yoshihiro, were close friends with their cousin Mari. Yoshihiro met an American student named Sarah, who was studying in Japan. Yoshihiro and Sarah began dating. When Sarah returned to Boston, Yoshihiro went with her.
While Yoshihiro was away, Mari realized that she’d always been in love with him. Things turned sour between Sarah and Yoshihiro, and he returned home to Japan. It soon became obvious to Shibami that her brother had fallen in love with Mari.
Mari and Yoshihiro began secretly dating, against their parents’ wishes. Then Yoshihiro died suddenly.
Mari is now 25. She moves around in a trance, “like a sleepwalker”. That’s only the beginning of the story. It’s about the friendship between Shibami and Mari, haunted by their mutual loss. It’s also about a lot more than that.
The second story is named Love Songs.
Every night, Fumi, the main character and narrator, drinks herself into a drunken stupor. Right before she falls asleep, Fumi hears strange music – almost like someone singing. She’s not sure if she’s dreaming or hallucinating.
Earlier in her life, Fumi was in a romantic relationship with a man. At the same time, the man was also in a romantic relationship with a woman named Haru. Fumi and Haru hated each other. Then the man left Japan. Haru went to Paris.
Fumi’s current boyfriend, Mizuo, had known both the man and Haru. Mizuo tells Fumi that the dead often communicate with the living through singing. He says that when a person is falling asleep and when they’re drunk are the best times for ghosts to synchronize with that living person. Mizuo thinks Haru is dead. He thinks Haru is singing to Fumi.
Fumi asks a mutual friend and learns that, yes, Haru has died.
Mizuo thinks that Fumi and Haru liked each other more than they were willing to admit. He thinks there may have been some mutually romantic feelings. At Mizuo’s insistence, he and Fumi go see a man who can put Fumi in touch with Haru in the afterlife. Fumi goes willingly. She realizes that Mizuo is right: She had been in love with Haru.
What does Haru want? What is the message in her song?
The third story is named Asleep.
Terako is the main character and the narrator. She’s been sleeping a lot recently, and she doesn’t know why. She can sleep through anything except a phone call from her boyfriend. Somehow, she always knows when it’s her boyfriend calling. She’s wide awake when she’s with her boyfriend. When she’s alone, she sleeps for long stretches of time.
Terako and her boyfriend have been seeing each other for a year and a half. She hasn’t been able to tell him that her good friend, Shiori, committed suicide two months ago.
Shiori had an unusual job, and when people ask what sort of work it was, Terako evades the question. Shiori was a sort of prostitute, only she didn’t have sex with her clients. People paid to sleep beside her – just sleep. Shiori wasn’t allowed to fall asleep herself, but she sometimes did.
Terako’s boyfriend is married. Terako knows this. Her boyfriend’s wife is in a coma. He was Terako’s boss when they started dating, and she still calls him Mr. Iwanaga.
As time passes, Terako finds it more difficult to stay awake, even when she’s with her boyfriend. She sleeps through entire days. She falls asleep on a park bench and is visited by a ghost who gives her specific career advice: Pick up a job-hunter’s newspaper at the train station, and find a job that requires you to be on your feet all the time. Terako ignores the advice. A few days later, a friend calls and offers Terako a temporary job as a hostess at a trade show – a job where she’s required to be on her feet all the time.
Has her boyfriend’s wife cursed Terako to sleep, or is she helping to keep Terako awake?
I absolutely loved this book. Its three stories drew me in. I didn’t want to put the book down. I wished my commute were longer, so I could continue reading when it was time to go to work.
I wished the stories were longer, especially the first one. I wanted to know more about where Shibami and Mari were heading.
There’s a magic quality to Asleep (the book). The writing is poetic and beautiful, even when the story is sad. (I’m sure it’s even better in the original Japanese.) They’re subtle and enigmatic. All three stories are character-driven. (That’s my favorite kind of story.) People handle unusual lives in normal, everyday ways. The physical world interacts with the spiritual world comfortably and easily.
- A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you