The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto is a satisfying read for Banana Yoshimoto fans. This means if you’re not familiar with how the famed Japanese Gen-X writer operates, you might lose interest before the story has any emotional payoff. There are many things that might make you lose interest, for example, her utter disregard for the “show, don’t tell” rule of fiction writing, or the thin plot that progresses only incrementally. But give enough patience, and the characters in the Lake will grow on you, enough for you to disregard everything else. This is an enjoyable read, even if not much happens in the story. The two main characters, Chihiro and Nakajima, are whimsical, but also fragile, troubled, and depressed. They’re like two hedgehogs who huddle together closer for warmth, but constantly at risk of hurting each other with their spikes. Do you like hedgehogs? Do you like desirous characters filled with longing à la Haruki Murakami? This is the book for you.
Like her hit, Kitchen, this novel is deceptively simple and rewards those who examine it further. It explores the themes of isolation, emotional weariness, and impermanence (Mono no aware) as they relate to the concept of death. How do we deal with the collateral damage that death brings? How can we cope? And are emotional wounds recoverable in the long term? These are the questions that Yoshimoto constantly bring up through the ethereal interactions between our two protagonists.
Chihiro is a mural artist whose mother recently passed away, and it’s during her struggles to overcome loss that she meets Nakajima, an emotionally-stunted man with a traumatic past. They soon strike up a relationship, though Nakajima’s past is a shard that threatens to sever the two apart. Both characters fit pretty well into the mold of Yoshimoto’s previous characters: detached, scarred, filled with longing. The story uses these characters to explore the sameness of a hollow life to death, and how people are always looking to fill up this hollowness. If Kitchen was a declaration of youth caught on fire, The Lake is the sober, older aftermath. The titular lake in this novel captures that idea perfectly: hazy, secluded, quite – the novel is ultimately a contemplation on life’s harder realities.