The woman who talked to beetles
Anna Smail’s latest novel Bird life It is meticulously rendered in the here and now of a mundane and utterly unromantic Tokyo: “…the dry cleaner, the apartment buildings with beds hanging over the balconies, the women carrying their suitcases, the eye doctor with the free machine to wash your clothes. Glasses. Crows. Plane trees. The smell of baking watermelon.” “
The characters are few and the focus is on the internal and emotional side. Yet, despite this presence in convenience stores, dilapidated apartment buildings, suburban trains, and the mundane, Smile proposes—and experiences her characters—worlds beyond rationality.
Dinah, a New Zealander, teaches English to Japanese undergraduate engineering and science students at a university in Tokyo. (My own experience of lecturing about New Zealand life and culture – my goodness – to Chinese students a few years ago was met with the stubborn indifference that Smile describes.) Dinah lives in a dreary and seemingly empty apartment building, “surrounded by concrete.” And dressed in pink concrete and covered in plaster… long and short, like the shell of a huge insect egg.
She took two exhausting trains and a bus to her classrooms where human contact — whether with students or with local and imported teachers — is routine and impersonal. Her existence is bleak and muted: “The world presented itself to the girl, as it does to everyone. Here it was said tempura. Here is silk. Here are tree geckos, fireworks and paper fans. Here is Joyondae Saki. Here are Bach’s cello suites. Here is Alexander McQueen. Here is the Icelandic language. Here are Tadao Ando and Antoni Gaudí. After being offered such riches, the girl instead chose a small room in an empty apartment building in a foreign city. She chose six containers of aloe vera yogurt, a bowl of instant ramen, and a tall boy from Zhuhai. She chose sleeplessness in the garden, and sadness.”
Yasuko is a teacher at the same school, although they have not met at the beginning of the novel. Both women carry a burden – Dinah the loss of her twin brother Michael, and Yasuko the withdrawal of her son Jun.
The two women confront Ueno Park in a time of mutual despair: “A young foreign woman was lying on the ground in the grass under one of the large zelkovas. There was something in her attitude that suggested collapse rather than relief… It was terrible to see such pain… Passers-by had noticed the girl – of course they had. Couples and families milled around politely.
But Yasuko stopped.
Therefore, there is an initial touch of psychological realism in the narrative – the grief and coping with the loss experienced by the two women is supported by friendship and human connection. Yasuko sympathizes with Dinah’s fatigue and explains it: “When you lose someone, you have to learn everything again. You have to learn the whole world again. But a world without that person in it. And that takes a lot of energy, and a very long time. In a similar way, it works.” Dinah on mending the rift between Yasuko and her son Jun: “The idea of doing something, of helping her friend, suddenly made the town come together around her. “It became the focus, the shape of it.”
As this suggests, the precise and detailed basis of the narrative in reality is deceptive. As Yasuko notes of herself, “Routine was a kind of second-rate magic,” a daily performance as if the world were simple and open. In fact, the world is swinging, for the sad, for the bereaved, and for the attentive reader. Smile asks us to pay attention to the tears and missteps in the normal, moments that, as Yasuko puts it, “change everything.” For just a moment, the word was separated from its course, and it remained alone in it.”
When Yasuko was thirteen—a gifted child, the joy of her scholarly father—things changed. As she describes it, she has “come back to her senses,” which is indicated by a conversation with a cat: “The first moment of her gift had a heavy, almost dull quality. It had the quality of inevitability. The cat’s face moved and twitched. Yasuko blinked.
“When the cat spoke to her, the voice she used was her own, as if that might ease her shock.
“Silly girl,” said the cat. “Why don’t you pull your socks up?” You look like Slattern.
It’s not a fantastically rewarding start, and indeed Yasuko’s intermittent contact with the world of animals and birds – cats, beetles, crows, fish – seems vague and frustratingly unhelpful. “If you keep sharpening the blade you will dull it. “If you keep filling the bowl without drinking, it will cloud and stain the tatami,” the fish told her, a statement she knew came from the mat. I qing. The beetles are unpromisingly silent. It is more useful for the peacock to say to her: “Stay alert. We will send you a girl.”
Is Yasuko’s experience with this slippage, her “powers”, and her frequent contact with the animal world, the product of an unstable mind? This is certainly the view of her horrified father, and although he loves her, it is the view of her estranged son. Or does she have a special vision of aspects of the world that are not normally visible? A familiar conundrum: Are mad people crazy or do they see more clearly than so-called sane people? Yasuko has resisted her father’s attempts to “cure” her, even though her powers are as much a burden as a gift to be embraced and controlled.
At the end of one of the episodes, she says: “And so the danger ended. Things returned to normal. The strangeness of the world was hindered by the ordinary routine of the day. This, ultimately, is what she built it for.
In a similar way, Michael’s presence – the ‘ghost’ – begins to appear to us, comforting company, palpably, almost physically real, which goes some way to assuaging the guilt she feels about his death: ‘The light gradually receded. In the shadows, she saw Dinah The bulk of Michael. He sat on the faux wood shelf she used as a desk, bookshelf, and storage unit. He sat very close to her open laptop. She didn’t know if it was heavy, and in what order he turned his physical backs.
“Please don’t break my laptop,” she said.
It looks real. Is it a projection of her desire and loss? If so, the comforting nature of their conversations could be seen as a metaphor for her self-healing. But the narrative allows—and encourages—the reader to be transported into a world in which these apparitions may be both believable and more real than the barren, eerie landscape that surrounds both women. The epigraph to the novel is taken from Finzi Contini Garden: “In life, to understand the world, you have to die at least once. So it is better to die young, while there is still time to recover. The movement from death to recovery is evident in the path of both Dinah and Yasuko.
One problem with the novel form is the conclusion. In realistic fiction, we must realize that life is messy and that stories that claim to convey reality in one way or another—even reality with talking beetles—are not easily resolved. A.S. Byatt’s novel, Still alive, and ends with the narrator saying words to the effect that our characters’ situation, their dilemma, does not end here but with it continuing like this for a while we might as well stop now. the end. Bird life The conclusion is more elusive – and not entirely satisfactory. The path taken by Dinah and Yasuko, their restorative friendship, and the illumination they reach together and individually, may be healing, but it is not conclusive either way. But in a novel of this delicate complexity, this is perhaps to be expected.
Bird life By Anna Smail (Te Herenga Waka Press, $38) is available in bookstores nationwide.