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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


David Joiner

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To purchase Kanazawa

Title: Kanazawa
Author: David Joiner
Genre: Novel
Written: 2022
Length: 284 pages
Availability: Kanazawa - US
Kanazawa - UK
Kanazawa - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B : nicely layered novel set in a lesser-known part of Japan

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
World Lit. Today . 9-10/2022 Reid Bartholomew

  From the Reviews:
  • "The past is a powerful force in the novel: it drives characters forward at times, anchoring them in place at others, and sometimes simply sitting with them in the form of questions that can never be answered, but at all times it’s a presence in the room to be reckoned with. Emmitt in particular is someone inexorably drawn to the past, to the point that others worry about him being swallowed by it, particularly when his own future seems so uncertain. (...) Reflective and atmospheric, Kanazawa is a story for sitting with." - Reid Bartholomew, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Kanazawa takes its title from the large Japanese city on the Japan Sea, "famed for its arts and crafts, gardens, and geisha districts, cuisine, and gold leaf". The novel's central figure, thirty-six-year-old expatriate American Emmitt, lives there with his wife of five years, Mirai, and when the novel opens they are set to take some major steps in their life together.
       First, they are about to commit to really settling down in Kanazawa, ready to sign a fifty-year-lease to rent and renovate a local machiya -- an enormous commitment, but also a bargain. It would, however also tie them down to Kanazawa. For now they still live with Mirai's parents, and Emmitt is looking forward to their having a place of their own, to really start their own lives. As part of that, he is also set to abandon his university job, which he has grown to hate; it's gotten to the point where he feels: "Up until now, I feel like I've been wasting my life trying to forge a path forward".
       Mirai clearly has some doubts about them tying themselves down in Kanazawa. She is drawn to Tokyo -- and with her younger sister, a recent graduate in an arts and design program, getting a job and moving there, the pull of the capital seems even stronger. Emmitt, on the other hand, is not a fan: "It was too big, too crowded and noisy, bursting everywhere with concrete and glass".
       Mirai is an ikebana artist, and teaches at a local school. Her father was also a talented artist, but gave up his art and became a dutiful salaryman; now retired, he is shuffling along a bit aimlessly, not entirely sure what to do with himself -- but he eventually does take some stabs at returning to his art. Clearly very talented, Emmitt wonders: "why his father-in-law had let so much talent lay dormant for half his life". Eventually it becomes clear that the old man still has some unresolved issues from the old days to deal with -- which he then does.
       Mirai's mother is involved with a literary club whose project at the time is local-born author Izumi Kyōka (1873-1939), including translating some of his work into English. She had asked Emmitt to help, but he couldn't at the time, but he is now more intrigued by the author and tries to engage a bit more with the work.
       Kyōka was an important writer, Emmitt's mother-in-law observing that many leading Japanese authors:

credited Kyōka with being "the most Japanese" writer from before World War II. Mishima even claimed that Kyōka's writing represented the apotheosis of the Japanese language.
       When Emmitt finally takes a closer look, Kyōka's work makes a strong impression:
The stories were unlike anything he'd ever encountered: a startling fusion of fantasy with realism, full of sensual imagery that heightened his feeling of being present in another person's dreams. But they had another quality that set them apart, which was their power to stir within him a longing for the past, no matter what kind of stories he wrote.
       Author Joiner includes a short appendix to the novel, on 'Reading Izumi Kyōka', explaining how Kyōka and his works: "figure prominently in this novel and were an important influence on its creation", with scenes from Kanazawa interacting with scenes from Kyōka's stories and life, adding: "a layer to the ways my novel can be read, understood, and enjoyed". No doubt, this adds to the appreciation of the novel, though it can also, as he notes, be readily enjoyed without familiarity with Kyōka's work
       While the novel opens with Emmitt and Mirai on the cusp of two major life-changes, only one comes to pass. Mirai thwarts the signing of the rental contract, and so they continue to live at her parent's house. Emmitt does, however, quit his job. Both decisions make for some tension between the couple; certainly, there seem to be some communication issues here, as Mirai leves Emmitt hanging as far as the signing of the rental agreement goes, while she is then also a bit taken by surprise when he quits his job without discussing it with her again, responding to the news by telling him: "I assumed you'd grit your teeth and persevere a little longer. Until the end of your contract". Apparently he hadn't made clear to her just how fed-up he was with his work.
       With her sister now in Tokyo, Mirai is also drawn to the capital -- and gets a job offer there, and reminds Emmitt that he could probably find a position there very easily ..... But Emmitt is comfortable in Kanazawa, and with much more free time now takes up a variety of things, including reading more Kyōka. Still determined for him and Mirai to become a bit more independent, he also takes a very big step -- without discussing it with Mirai first. He tells a friend: "If I do this, I want to do it on my own" -- which doesn't seem like the most promising way to go about things for a couple that seems to be having difficulties bridging their increasing distances.
       Meanwhile, Mirai's father has taken to wandering the street for hours at a time, dealing with some personal demons of sorts in his own way. It all culminates in a semi-dramatic episode that has Emmitt accompanying the old man on a quest of sorts, whose resolution might allow for something of a fresh start, personally and creatively. Along the way, Emmitt learns a bit more about his in-laws' past and history as well.
       Kanazawa is a nicely local-colored novel, the whole range of tensions of modern Japan, from busy, bustling and crowded Tokyo to the more relaxed Kanazawa to the village of Shiramine, presented. Emmitt has settled in in Japan, and remains drawn to its past; he is still trying to figure out how to position himself in contemporary Japan -- envying another expatriate, Clifton Karhu (1927-2007), who became a well-known woodblock artist:
     Karhu, Emmitt reflected, had come to Japan during an era he wished he could have known, when Japan retained a stronger connection to its past than now, the country was still poorly known beyond its shores, and, following the end of World War II, the world seemed simpler and more forward-looking. Karhu represented an earlier era. Emmitt had arrived here too late.
       That desire for both a stronger connection to the past and being more forward-looking makes for a tough balance, but Kanazawa allows Emmitt something of a resolution, as both he and Mirai begin to have a clearer idea of what might lie ahead -- each, interestingly, largely getting there by doing their own thing, but ultimately finding themselves brought closer together as well.
       While parts seem under-developed -- just how, and why, Emmitt found his way to Japan and Kanazawa in the first place, for example, or any connection to America, as family and friends there are pretty much entirely missing from his story. Still, the focus on a less well-known Japanese city and area is welcome, as is the fact that Joiner does not weigh his story down too much. There is a great deal going on here, not least the preöccupation with the work of Kyōka, and the interesting backstory about Mirai's parents, but Joiner handles these well, not making any of it too heavy.
       It makes for an enjoyable read that moves along quite well and gives a satisfying sense of this corner of Japan.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 April 2022

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Kanazawa: Reviews: David Joiner: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author David Joiner is a longtime resident of Japan.

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© 2022 the complete review

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