Sun, Feb 23, 2003 - Page 19 News List

`Goodbye Tsugumi': A teenager's remembrance of things past

Japanese youth culture gets a philosophical treatment when Banana Yoshimoto muses nostalgically on young romance, shopping and death

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

The book reads oddly as a result of this time lapse. No one has a mobile phone and no one sends e-mails. This is perfectly natural for 1989, but the English translation is clearly intended to appeal to today's teenagers and is awash with contemporary American teenage expressions.

So -- is this novel really kitsch? Does it exist in a world of plaster saints and teen fashions, T-shirts bearing meaningless slogans, pink socks and schoolgirl hats? The answer has to be "not entirely." Such a culture avoids reality. It doesn't want to know about war or politics, and not much about disability either. It wants to know about how many little bears you have hanging from your backpack, not George W. Bush and Iraq. And when real people get killed in such wars, it looks only at its own tears, and whether they reflect the sunlight as they trickle down the cheek.

So what does Goodbye Tsugumi have beyond this? A little, but not much. When the novel opens, Maria's father is married to someone else and Maria's mother is only his lover. He eventually gets a divorce and marries Maria's mother. The relationship between Maria and her father is one of the better things in the book, but not a lot is made of it and it's never developed.

It could also be argued that Banana Yoshimoto has missed a major opportunity here. She's set up someone with a heightened perception of her own mortality, but the things she does in this foreshortened life are neither particularly interesting nor very significant. This turned out to be the last summer of Tsugumi's life, but all we have are the feelings of the narrator, and these don't add up to much. How sad it was! How alive she seemed! And that's about as far as it goes.

Good novels have characters who are brought to life in engaging and credible ways, not least by the way they speak. This is true of Tsugumi herself, but not of the others. And although Tsugumi is a memorable character, she doesn't develop. It's true teenagers see the world like this -- even though they themselves mature fast, they aren't old enough to have much conception of change.

Banana Yoshimoto was 25 when she wrote this novel, so for her to adopt this adolescent perspective then was understandable. But perhaps Faber could now give us a sample of what she has been writing in more recent years. It would be interesting to know if she is able to evolve beyond what we have here, the limited sensibility of adolescence.

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