Contemporary · Japanese · Japanese Literature · review · Translated work · YA

Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto, Michael Emmerich (Translation)

589483Paperback, 186 pages
Published June 6th 2003 by Grove Press
Source: Library

Synopsis:
Banana Yoshimoto’s novels of young life in Japan have made her an international sensation. Goodbye Tsugumi is an offbeat story of a deep and complicated friendship between two female cousins that ranks among her best work. Maria is the only daughter of an unmarried woman. She has grown up at the seaside alongside her cousin Tsugumi, a lifelong invalid, charismatic, spoiled, and occasionally cruel. Now Maria’s father is finally able to bring Maria and her mother to Tokyo, ushering Maria into a world of university, impending adulthood, and a “normal” family. When Tsugumi invites Maria to spend a last summer by the sea, a restful idyll becomes a time of dramatic growth as Tsugumi finds love and Maria learns the true meaning of home and family. She also has to confront both Tsugumi’s inner strength and the real possibility of losing her. Goodbye Tsugumi is a beguiling, resonant novel from one of the world’s finest young writers.

Review:

You may have noticed the presence of a new page on my blog: “Translated YA.” I am making a conscious effort to read translated works of YA lit because I feel that not enough attention is granted to an immense body of work out there. I am deeply interested in the glimpses of societies and cultures given through these works. I am also curious about gender and narrative constructions in works by authors who are not North American.

Goodbye Tsugumi is a gentle book. It’s like a calm seashore. It has the potential to become a raging sea but it remains calm. The titular character is the narrator, Maria’s cousin and she is what a mean girl would look like if one were to go near one and poke them. Tsugumi is precocious and beautiful. She curses like a sailor and she speaks like a world weary woman. I guess having death waiting in the eaves gives her an excuse to speak as she would. She’s also beautiful and remarkably frail.

What I found fascinating about this novel, though I wouldn’t call it YA, is the absence of jealousy and envy which is always present when two women are present in the same scene in a novel. Just think about it. The protagonist is either insecure about her looks when the mean girl is present or is indulgent and patronizing when the best friend is present. This novel does not have that. There is a selflessness about the main character that struck me as curious. She talks about Tsugumi, narrating her terrible attitude and the way she is irresistible to boys but there’s no judgment in her tone at all. There is a boy present in the novel and were it a North American YA, both girls would immediately be interested in him and he would be interested in the protagonist while the best friend pouted and plotted on the side.

In this novel, Maria does not even consider him as boyfriend material and there is never any discussion of her own love affairs. Of course I found it a bit unsettling because it is so different from what I am so used to however, it was also refreshing. The story is not about romance though. It is about the relationship between the two girls and not in an explicit way. You glean their friendship from their conversations, from their exchanges and from what is not said.

This book may not be long but it contains one of the most beautiful stories I have read. About friendship, about life and about death as well. I recommend it.

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5 thoughts on “Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto, Michael Emmerich (Translation)

  1. I read my first Banana Yoshimoto novel this year, “Kitchen”, and enjoyed it–this one sounds good, too! I have read some other Japanese novels as well (and watched too much anime for a couple years there…) and I agree so much about the relationships being different than in stories written in the west. It is refreshing for sure. But there are also less happy parts to it, like the more I seek out stories from Japan the more there seems to be this darkness underneath them. I guess that is everywhere, just in different ways, but the despair in some of these works just sticks out for me. I read one some time back called “Coin Locker Babies” which sort of explored the plight of young people in Japan, and I swear I have never experienced a story with so little redemption. “Real World” and “Grotesque” by Natsuo Kirino were pretty dark too though I still loved them. Basically I am just fascinated by Japan, though I know as an outsider I will never truly understand it.

    Anyway, great post!

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    1. I’ve read Real World too and that one was very disturbing as was Out by the same author. She has this ability to get under your skin though not as much as Yoko Ogawa whose novellas in the collection called The Diving Pool truly gave me shivers. Even Murakami’s works have this underlying depth, this query to them, that is missing in North America literature. I haven’t read coin locker babies though I’ve heard of it but it seems like something I’d like to try out. I love Japanese literature as well. I love the way they approach storytelling.

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  2. My friend who studies Japanese also recommended to read something from Banana Yoshimoto. I am now planning since I am so interested in Japanese culture.

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    1. I am too! I almost learned Japanese instead of Korean, hehe. I love Japanese authors and have read quite a few while a greater number remain on my list. I recommend starting with Kitchen by Yoshimoto. It’s a good read.

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