Banana Yoshimoto: Asleep

My apartment gets a lot of sun in the afternoon. I stood in the dazzling light, my mind blank, taking the laundry off the line. A pleasant, just-washed scent drifted up from the white sheets as they brushed my cheek.

I started feeling sleepy. Light came streaming down over my back like water in a shower while I folded the clothes, and at the same time the cold air from the air conditioner blew over me. I started to doze off. Naps that begin this way feel terrific. You feel as if you’re about to have a dream all in gold. I slipped out of my skirt and slid into bed. Lately I hadn’t been dreaming at all. Soon everything would go black.


Why I read it

I found this in a local independent bookshop years and years ago. I picked it off the shelf not because I’d ever heard of it, but because its minimalist cover and the author’s unusual name intrigued me. The back-cover blurb had me decided. When I took it to the counter, the guy said, ‘We ordered this in for a buddhist monk, but when it arrived he’d already found another copy. So we put it on the shelf. I’d been thinking about buying it myself.’ Too late, sucker, too late.

I remember the style of ‘Asleep’ painting a white-on-white picture in my mind – in the way of carvings on ivory, or sparse modern art. Everything was calm and fine and pure and simple and delicate, but melancholy and nostalgic and painful and alive at the same time. I went on to buy a few other Banana Y works, but this was the one I’d make everyone else read when they asked about her stuff.

It’s been ages since I read it, though, so I thought I’d take it to re-read on the plane on my way to Japan for the first time.

What I rediscovered

It’s not just one novel – there are a three short stories. I’d forgotten that.

In the first story, Night and night’s travelers, a young woman called Shibami deals with the pain left by the memory of her vivacious older brother Yoshihiro, who died in a car accident a year ago. Shibami and her cousin Mari try to move on, amidst deep unspoken feelings of loneliness and disconnection that stretch beyond them, almost reaching a strength of emotion that can create connections on some higher plane.

The second story, Love songs, follows a young woman called Fumi as she deals (through alcohol) with the painful memory of a previous relationship and the recent death of the woman she shared the man with. Fumi and her new boyfriend try to move on, amidst deep unspoken feelings of loneliness and disconnection that stretch beyond them, reaching a strength that can even create a connection on a higher plane.

The final and titular story, Asleep, features a young woman called Terako who deals (through excessive sleep) with the pain of her best friend’s recent death by suicide, and the loneliness she increasingly feels when together with her married boyfriend. Terako struggles to feel awake and alive again, amidst deep unspoken feelings of estrangement and disconnection that reach beyond her, attaining a strength that seems to have created connections with significant other characters on a higher plane.

Yes. They are all pretty much the same.

Same, same, but different

The style of all three stories is so similar that they blend in to each other as soon as I’ve finished the book. At the time of writing I’ve re-read it two-and-a-half times in reasonably quick succession, and unless I have the book open in my hands to check, I can’t for the life of me remember which story was which.

Each story has the most beautiful, clean, elegant palette: they’re like a sheet of white washi paper, or an empty tatami room, or a haiku about snow fringing a pond, or the crystal clarity of a cup of sake. They’re delightful to read. Yoshimoto seems to see things with intensity.

I remember seeing things like this a lot when I was younger. I think the talent’s fading off in me. On my fourteenth birthday I remember feeling so great I thought if I could see myself, I’d see that every separate hair on my head was outlined in a gold glow. On a drive across Iceland when I was backpacking there one winter I felt like the pink-purple dusting the dusk gave to the icescape was so beautiful I could hear it sing. I used to feel the burgeoning, eager promise of each new year so strongly that its unique colour would suffuse through me.

Yoshimoto speaks the same language, all synesthesia and soft intensity. Additionally, she tells her stories at the slow, flowing pace of tai-chi moves. Finishing a story feels like coming out of a meditation.

For these reasons, I keep reading her stuff, even if it does seem like it riffs endlessly on the same tune.

Cultural notes

Reading a book like this – especially as a western tourist on a holiday in Japan – makes you feel like you’ve been granted a very precious ticket that’ll let you be a local for a day. It’s lovely to feel like for a short time and in a limited way you’re someone who belongs here, in this fascinating and strange country, instead of being a conspicuous foreigner completely dependent on the kindness of strangers.

I wonder to what extent this book is typical of Japanese cultural attitudes. Does depression generally manifest itself there as a soft, pure, white, lonely sadness (rather than the black, ugly, vicious ‘black dog’ of Western culture) and do people help others like pilot boats, pulling alongside them in the violet night to gently help steer them back (instead of our feeling that we need to carry, cajole, medicate, intervene)? I suspect I’m taking one writer and extrapolating a whole culture – but I’d like to find out more.

I’m glad I re-read Asleep. When I get home, I’m going to re-read Kitchen.


This book was mostly read on a plane to Japan.


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