Book review / Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Russell F Wasden, Faber, pounds 9.99

Banana's skin-deep slice of life
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If Amrita was set in Surrey, no one would give a damn. Thank heavens for tatami mats, bamboo blinds and the smell of cooking prawns, because without such automatic triggers, devoid of the rubber stamp of coolness currently bestowed by all things Japanese, Amrita would seem banal for a western audience, to the point of mystification.

As the author writes in her Afterword, "Now as I read over this novel I realise how naive it is ... The theme of this book is simple. I want to express the idea that regardless of all the amazing events that happen to each of us, there will always be the never-ending cycle of daily life." And there we have it. The never-ending cycle of daily life plods a dreary and indeed seemingly random course over 366 pages of bars, bread shops and flats. Characters inexplicably amble on to explain their life stories, or retreat offstage only to appear in telephone calls, letters, and the protagonist's tiresome dreams.

Near the end of the novel, when we are aching for some structural cohesion, a hint of epiphany or a fragment of a story, the narrator - twentysomething Tokyo dweller Sakumi - jots down a list of the recent events which form the novel's plot. Sample: "5) I get involved with Ryuichiro 6) Trip to Kochi 7) Trip to Saipan 8) Berries closes down 9) I find new job". And so it continues, give or take a few ghosts and telepathic surprises.

The novel starts promisingly with the aftermath of the death of Sakumi's sister, Mayu, a drug-addicted actress of the type of luminous fragility that augurs early death and a hypnotic myth. Mayu's boyfriend, novelist Ryuichiro, takes up with Sakumi after a head injury that leaves her with memory loss. The hint of mystery surrounding Mayu's death, and Sakumi's family situation - a household of women plus one strange brother - is suspended in an almost transparent structure interposing layers of time, dream, symbolism and memory that is initially compelling. But this flimsily fine layering swiftly falls flat, and remains face down for the rest of the novel.

Sakumi has an inconclusive relationship with Ryuichiro, talks to her friends a lot, visits the Pacific island of Saipan, comes home, talks to her telepathically gifted brother, and suddenly meets two new characters whose very names herald creaking caricature: Sakumi's final entry in her list of life events notes: "13) A new friendship with Noodles and Mr Mesmer." Only the new friendship dissolves into a void of Tokyo bars and monochrome dreams - as does the mystery of Mayu and the love affair.

Amrita veers from sanitary realism to the supernatural. This is effective at times, a rippling of hallucinatory shivers through a hot cityscape. But ghosts crowd in where theme and progression fail, with subtle quivers whipped into seismic eruptions - the younger brother sees a UFO; a blinding glare of spirits hits Saipan - and by the end, clairvoyant characters are cropping up all over the shop. This is cut-and-paste Japanese magic realism.

"I always thought about the meaning of life," says Sakumi. Discussions about "life" are as artless as the prose style: "So many different people in this world, I thought to myself as I set the receiver back on its hook ... When you think about it, human beings are really remarkable." There's a creeping sense of having missed out on the fun and indeed the point of this Tokyo party. Any lingering resonance drained away in the translation. Sakumi's relationship with her quirky younger brother is moving, showing that Yoshimoto is happiest at home, her one-dimensional prose more suited to the smaller canvass of the essay and story. As a novel, Amrita drifts, indulges itself, and ultimately bewilders.

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