Books: Slow-burning Miss Smilla with tissues up her sleeves
Sunday 21 February 1999
by Kerri Sakamoto
Macmillan pounds 12.99
America's inexhaustible supply of good writing has turned out another impressive debut in Kerri Sakamoto's new novel, set among immigrant Japanese families in Seventies Ontario. A multiple- murder under the pylons and cables of an electrical field leads to a tale of self-realisation. For those who like their books to have that sub-titled, Peter Hoeg feel, here is a slow-burning, enigmatic addition to the genre.
An ageing loner, Asako Saito expects little from the rest of her life: "It wasn't that I had not waited long enough, but that I'd waited too long." A spinster with tissues up her sleeves, she is cold - as she puts it, "capable of great restraint". She lives her emotional life through her memories, recollected and dreamt, of Eiji, the dead older brother she adored, and vicariously through the love-lives of her younger brother, a young girl neighbour and her friend Chisako, one of the murder victims. Their candid confessions humiliate her, offending less for their presumption than their veracity - even the naive love of a pubescent girl embarrasses her, because even a pubescent girl can recognise Asako's own naivete. But the girl, Sachi, is the foil also for Asako's maternal feelings and a sympathetic parallel with her own remembered relationship with Eiji. The account of her relationships is so absorbing it almost rehabilitates the dread phrase, "getting in touch with one's feelings". For some time, these feelings are chiefly those of the supporting cast, but this is less to display their faculties than the main character's latent sensitivity - Asako is, in her own quiet way, a heroine.
Her younger brother Stum brings to the story the modest heroism of someone who expects less than the average reader, and who would accuse those who found his meagre circumstances wanting of being the ones with the problem. Asako herself has very little and recoils even from what she does have - her slow-dying father stinking in his bedroom, her clumsy younger brother's infringements of her house-rules and the imperfection of her recollections of Eiji. But if this is a story of loneliness, its first act is a recognition of the important truth that the introverted like Asako are not by nature sweet, harmless individuals - and that they do not have to rage and shout to show they are not. For example, when she uncharacteristically acknowledges her luck in having "a brother who loves her", and asks, "How many could say that?", she is speaking, it transpires, of Eiji, not Stum.
The plot is a gradual slipping of secrets until Asako is no longer the passive observer of events she appeared to be - both to the reader and to herself. In a community of only a handful of people, even such antisocial people, she is inevitably caught up in the lives of others. But as a human being, she cannot but be implicated in the fates of those she encounters.
This is a serious treatment of the tragedies of ordinary life, and in its telling it has that languid but charged atmosphere beloved of Channel 4 and World Cinema fans (in the best possible way). The slow burn may be much too slow for some, but that is the writer's integrity: the wait is for the character's benefit, not ours. It is not a read to be taken lightly, and it would probably require a literary Jilly Goolden to appreciate all its finer points ("Mmm! I'm getting menace! ... I'm getting sensitivity! ..."). But not everyone will get it.
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