Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto is the perfect example of how a book can burn away every thread of goodwill the reader has for it. I came at it vaguely expecting a hybrid of introspective contemporary women’s fiction and mundane surrealism, a mixture of Lorrie Moore’s Self Help, Melissa Banks’ A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and (yes) Haruki Murakami’s fiction.
Ultimately, the novel aimed to do a bit of those things but fails at all of them simultaneously. The book stumbles at its attempt to dish out pieces of faux-philosophical faux-wisdom, while the romance-inflected “modern girl’s quest for self-actualization” angle starts at vaguely interesting and careens towards stultifying.
Narrated by a Tokyo office girl named Sakumi, the premise of the novel begins promisingly enough, as she details the life of a household that has recently experience tragedy. Sakumi’s sister, a model and actress named Mayu, has died of suicide before the novel begins and this loss hangs not only around her, but also around her mother and pre-adolescent brother. On top of that, Sakumi gets into a serious accident that causes her to temporarily lose large chunks of her memory. Her quest to piece bag fragments of her life becomes more complicated by the surprise arrive of Ryuichiro, a writer who used to be Mayu’s boyfriend before she died.
The plot meanders sedately from that point on, eventually ending up with Ryuichiro and Sakumi having a relationship, through a series of events which I found frankly creepy. Sakumi’s younger brother Yoshio is revealed to have clairvoyance, telepathy, and the ability to sense aliens. Sakumi, Ryuichiro, and Sakumi go on vacation to Saipan, where they encounter hippie vacationeers and the ghosts of World War II soldiers. All of these, however, are narrated with such an infuriatingly flat affect. In the beginning I chalked up this flatness to Sakumi’s brain injury and how her slowly reknitting memories make her feel removed from the world. But even conversations or events that would make other people’s emotions spike at the very least seem to just flow over her like water.
Furthermore, there’s this weird thread of philosophizing throughout Amrita, about things that have been written about better by more insightful writers. Yes, life is short and must be lived to the fullest. Yes, family is important. Yes, love feels good. At one point Sakumi writes Ryuichiro a letter that spans eight pages and the main takeaway iss: “In order to feel such a simple thing, apparently it’s good for one to fall down and knock the memory from her head then struggle to retrieve it.” She has just summarized a 360-page novel.
It’s entirely possible that I simply didn’t Get It. But I’d like to believe that I picked this novel in good faith and was broken down by the plodding narration and uninteresting, one-dimensional characters. I’m also willing to to say that the problem may have been the narration because some people have apparently enjoyed Yoshimoto’s previous novels and liked this one less. However, I don’t feel inclined to pick another book from her until the far future. You led me astray this time, Michiko Kakutani blurb!