The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

17th May 2011


Writing under a somewhat strange pseudonym (apparently selected because of her love for banana flowers and the name’s androgyny), Banana has been polarising opinions ever since.

Although I’d never read anything by her until The Lake landed on my doormat, it’s clear after only a few pages why people are so fiercely divided in their views of her writing.

Banana confesses that the recurrent themes of her writing are “the exhaustion of young people in contemporary Japan” and “the way in which terrible experiences shape a person’s life” and in The Lake, both are intertwined.

The novel is narrated by Chihiro, a confused and often frustratingly inarticulate young woman coming to terms with the recent death of her mother.

Restless and alienated in her hometown, she moves to Tokyo and starts a painfully slow and anxious romance with Nakajima, the student who lives in the apartment opposite hers.

Theirs is a gentle, quiet and melancholy affair, and it’s obvious from the outset that Nakajima has been badly damaged by his Mysterious Past.

At times their fragile relationship is intimate and sweet, but discomfort and caution on both sides breeds uncertainty, and Chihiro becomes more and more intrigued about Nakajima’s bizarre behaviour and idiosyncrasies.

Wanting to stand by her man, she accompanies him to a ghostly lake, where his friends live a monastic life in a ramshackle cabin. There they meet Mino and his sister, Chii. Battling with a long and exhausting illness, she spends all her time asleep, but through her brother’s interpretations she is still somehow able to forecast the future via dreams dense with symbolism.

Between this band of sad and unsettling characters, Nakajima’s traumatic history is unveiled, and with everything out in the open the two of them must see if they can accept the past and heal each other’s still-painful scars.

Although there are times when the prose is rich, vivid and beautiful, at others Chihiro’s internal monologues are related in clumsy and awkward simplistic language, and the inconsistencies soon became irritating enough to break the spell.

While I can certainly see the appeal of Banana Yoshimoto’s deftly-drawn characters and dream-like scenes, for me The Lake missed the dizzy heights I’d been expecting from all the Bananarama hype.

Published in Japan in 2005, the English translation is published by Melville House in July. You can pre-order it in hardback for £11.73, or for Kindle for £10.56.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended for: Lovers of contemporary Japanese literature and suckers for fragile, damaged characters.

Other recommended reading: For another unsettling, shifting and surreal world with a cast of strange characters, try Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami. Or if you’ve been smitten by Banana, try Asleep, a collection of three stories revolving around themes of dreams, death and sleep.

Jane Bradley


  • Dan Holloway says:

    May I add a shout for N.P, my favourite Banana-work. I read Kitchen afetr I picked it up in a Waterstone’s somewhere near Cecil Court, and I was knocked off my feet by its fragility and simplicity. It’s a simplicity that hides so many many echoes of troubled pasts and dark, sour waters (exactly what I was trying to achieve when I wrote Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, but I didn’t come close to what Banana achieves).

    If I had to recommend a Murakami to Banana fans it would be Sputnik Sweetheart or After Dark – they come closest to the pared down surreality of her writing. I’d also recommend Less Than Zero, which is a strange “if you like this” choice, but the style and themes overlap considerably. Also Josephine Hart’s devastating book Damage, and Philippe Djiann’s Betty Blue (37°2 Le Matin). Both are near conmtemporaries of Kitchen and offer similarly gentle, searing deconstructions of normality)

    It is a little-known but essential fact that the best way to find fascinating people to follow on twitter is to search “Banana Yoshimoto” – her cyberfans are the coolest group in the twitterverse