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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Lake

Yoshimoto Banana

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To purchase The Lake

Title: The Lake
Author: Yoshimoto Banana
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 188 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Lake - US
The Lake - UK
The Lake - Canada
The Lake - India
Der See - Deutschland
Il lago - Italia
  • Japanese title: みずうみ
  • Translated by Michael Emmerich

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Our Assessment:

B : fine character-portraits of youngish adults in transition

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Yorker . 6/6/2011 Ligaya Mishan
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/7/2011 Hirsh Sawhney
Publishers Weekly . 7/3/2011 .
San Francisco Chronicle . 22/5/2011 Leslie Jamison

  From the Reviews:
  • "The pace is slow, almost desultory; only near the end does a revelation come that gives belated import to everything that came before." - Ligaya Mishan, The New Yorker

  • "Terse truisms occasionally bog down Yoshimoto’s prose (.....) But much of the action unfolds through artful dialogue and a nimble fusion of romantic and existential reflection." - Hirsh Sawhney, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Yoshimoto (Kitchen) delves into an elusive romance between an artist and a student, each of whom bears scars from unusual upbringings, in this clever, off-beat novel. (...) Yoshimoto's marvelously light touch is perfectly captured by Emmerich's pristine translation." - Publishers Weekly

  • "When pitched just right, this style feels honest and unpretentious, but when the prose goes loose, it can easily turn slack and sentimental. Its casual deftness thickens into heavy-handed cliche or overly simplistic strokes of assertion. The plot of The Lake is often bogged down by ruminations that meander into overly familiar territories -- emotional zones explored in so many novels, perhaps, that they give the sense of having been too many times trodden. We encounter the signature pleasures of a Yoshimoto novel, but they feel more diffuse here -- more vaguely drawn, and less frequent -- than in her strongest novels." - Leslie Jamison, San Francisco Chronicle

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:

       The Lake is narrated by Chihiro, a woman going on thirty who is a "fledgling painter, you see, who specialized in murals" (though she still sees it more as a hobby than a true profession). The novel describes her relationship with a young man about her age, Nakajima, who -- very slowly -- becomes a part of her life.
       Chihiro was the daughter of an unmarried (though very much in love) couple, her mother a club owner, and Chihiro begins her account shortly after her mom died. Nakajima's mother was also dead ("and whenever he talked about her he cried"), and there's also considerable mystery to him: even Chihiro has to admit: "No one in the world is as peculiar as he is".
       Nakajima is a medical student, doing genetics research, but it took him a while to settle on this field; similarly, his relationship with Chihiro builds up very slowly and tentatively. As he'll eventually admit:

     "I've been broken in all kinds of ways, and so for a long time now I've had the sense that I won't be able to make it through my life in a normal way. But thanks to my mother, somehow or other I've been able to balance the books, and things have turned out really well."
       Chihiro eventually figures out what the trauma he endured was; willing to accept him at every point merely as he is -- "Nakajima and I never talked about our preparations or plans, even dreams. We just kept going on as we were, here and now." -- she is clearly a good partner for him. Meanwhile, the fact that he makes so few demands on her is obviously something she feels comfortable with at this stage of her life as well.
       Not too much happens in the novel: Chihiro gets commissioned to paint a large mural, while Nakajima makes plans to go to Paris to the Pasteur Institute and Chihiro decides to go with him. Nakajima also takes her to meet two friends of his, by the lake that gives the novel its title. Chihiro can see that these friends have something to do with Nakajima's mysterious past, but it is only when she returns there alone that she finally figures it out.
       Typical Yoshimoto protagonists, both Chihiro and Nakajima remain figures that are still at sea, still unsure of what will become of their lives -- despite the fact that they are already around thirty. (Nakajima's scientific interests are not presented as being in the least significant; he seems to enjoy the intellectual activity -- the simple studying --, but there's little to the substance of it.) Typically, too, their relationship seems extremely fragile -- and: "Nothing about our days together was certain." Even Chihiro is struck by the irreality of it all (even as she see herself going through similar motions):
     Everything in my life revolves around people playing at being something.
       The Lake resolves itself in Nakajima finally sharing his past with Chihiro; the suggestion is that in escaping to Paris they will be able to start an authentic life. (The novel is full of references to the debased or inauthentic, ranging from Chihiro's not-quite-family (her unmarried parents) to an Italian restaurant where the chef has to adapt his food to the taste of his customers ("pasta that had obviously been boiled too long", etc.); only at the lake is there some purity (in its simplest form: water).)
       Presented in typical Yoshimoto-fashion, the style deceptively artless, the account seemingly straightforward and simple, the characters adrift, The Lake works quite well. The roundabout approach to presenting a character who must deal with extreme trauma (the extent and details of which are only revealed near the end) is quite effective, yet ultimately also leaves the story feeling somewhat underdeveloped: by offering some (but limited) specificity, Yoshimoto undermines the drifting vagueness of the rest of the novel (which she manages quite well).
       Even if it doesn't quite all come together (but then her novels of lives in transition rarely do or mean to), The Lake is among the more appealing and successful of Yoshimoto's translated efforts.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 April 2011

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The Lake: Reviews: Yoshimoto Banana: Other books by Yoshimoto Banana under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Popular Japanese author Yoshimoto Banana (よしもと ばなな; 吉本 ばなな; actually 吉本 真秀子) was born in 1964.

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