Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto (translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich)
Published by Faber & Faber, 2001 (first published in 1989)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
The three novellas in this collection share no overlap in character or plot, but there is a synergy in the setups, themes, and tone that ties them all together. Each story focuses on a young woman afflicted by a strange sleep habit. One, mourning her lover, begins to sleepwalk. Another, embarking on an affair with a married man whose wife is in a coma, finds herself increasingly unable to stay awake. The third, once embroiled in a love triangle, finds her dreams haunted by the ‘other woman’ she was pitted against.
As striking as these concepts are, the stories themselves aren’t hugely plot driven, in that not a lot actually happens. There’s no gut punch or unexpected twist. There’s no big moment of revelation or development for the characters. Instead, the author simply gives us a snapshot of these women’s lives, in an almost voyeuristic fashion. That said, there are certain motifs present in all three stories, and it’s when you examine these similarities that the book’s overall themes become more apparent. All of the protagonists have recently suffered a bereavement, for example, with Yoshimoto presumably commenting on the quieter, psychological ways this can affect someone, and the sense of detachment from the world that it can lead to, particularly where a lack of closure is concerned. Each of the women has also at some time been involved in a relationship that was in some way taboo, perhaps hinting at the complexity and messiness of love.
The narrative voice is also very similar throughout, meaning the air of melancholy, nostalgia, and mild whimsy that is established early on continues to hover over the book. Yoshimoto is often lauded for her ability to capture the voice of her generation, so perhaps making her heroines read similarly was a deliberate move; a nod to the idea of a contemporary Japanese everywoman. Personally, I would have preferred a little more differentiation between each protagonist.
I see all of these overt parallels from story to story as both a plus and a minus. Though it means they feel similar, and thus work as a cohesive collection, it can result in a certain bleeding together of finer details. I can already feel the line between the three stories beginning to blur, and as such, it seems to be the kind of collection that is more successful in creating a certain mood than it is in crafting standout moments.
Highly readable, the prose itself is simple, but she captures a moment well and generates a sense of calm that I found oddly compelling. I can’t fail to mention, however, that one of the stories makes frequent unchallenged use of a slur when describing a character with dwarfism. Genuine misuse of terms, clumsy translation, or a sign of the book’s age, I can’t be certain, but it’s a word so removed from general use in the UK these days that I found it incredibly jarring.
With fantastic core concepts in each story, some really interesting character dynamics, and possible flirtations with something magical adding a whole other layer of interpretation, this book had a lot of potential. It was certainly worthwhile, and I’m glad to have read more of Yoshimoto’s work. But as with the stories in Kitchen, I couldn’t help but wish these novellas had ended with a little more oomph, rather than a gentle fizzling out.
If you’d like to give Asleep a go, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!