At the ripe old age of 24, Banana Yoshimoto became the literary critics' darling and an overnight publishing sensation in Japan with the release of her lyrical novella Kitchen. Today, a dozen-odd years down the road, Banana-mania continues unabated. Conservative Japanese critics kvetch, complaining that Yoshimoto's novels are not steeped in Japanese culture and tradition, but her legions of admirers know better. Few contemporary writers are more adept at capturing the urban angst and exhaustion of Japan's unfocused young people.
Yoshimoto's latest, Goodbye Tsugumi, is the story of three teenaged cousins who live in a traditional Japanese inn on the coast. It will likely be the last summer they spend together: Maria is moving to Tokyo with her parents; Yoko will be moving with her parents when they complete plans for a new hotel; and Tsugumi is dying. In her public persona, Tsugumi is frail and waifish, pale and beautiful, soft-spoken and sweet. Among her family and close confidantes, though, Tsugumi is nothing short of a raving harridan, Japanese-style. Thoroughly spoiled and frequently malicious, Tsugumi provokes fights, lies constantly and generally makes life miserable for those around her. Then, enigmatically, she will do or say something so transcendently kind and beautiful, it's hard to imagine that both halves exist in one person. Now, for one final summer, the three girls will hang out together, walk along the deserted beach, reminisce and indulge in summer romances.
Goodbye Tsugumi is told in the first person by Maria, who shares a particularly complex relationship with her charismatic cousin. As Tsugumi's health wavers, Maria confronts for the first time the possibility that the girl might die, and possibly soon. It is an unsettling realization for Maria, as it threatens all of her notions of home, love, family and belonging.
Fans of Haruki Murakami will find a kindred spirit in Yoshimoto, but it is too easy, and more than a bit unfair, to compare her writing just to other Japanese authors. Yoshimoto credits Stephen King as one of her major influences, but it would be equally reasonable to compare her to such diverse talents as Anne Tyler and Douglas Coupland. On the one hand, Yoshimoto crafts the sort of rich dialogues and relationships that Tyler is famous for; on the other hand, she captures the elusive voice of alienated youth, Japanese Gen-X.
As is the case with several of Yoshimoto's previous novels, Goodbye Tsugumi doesn't really have a beginning, middle and end. It is rather a snapshot of a life, or lives, out of balance, sometimes visibly, sometimes just beneath the surface. Yoshimoto brings to the table compelling characters, a spare and ethereal manner of writing and an eye for the way in which terrible experiences shape one's life.