Bridges in Tokyo

AUDREY HEPBURN'S NECK by Alan Brown, Sceptre pounds 9.99

THERE is an irony at the heart of Alan Brown's captivating debut novel. Here is an American writer perfectly attuned to the pulse of modern Japan, to the people, rituals, attitudes and spirit of an alien culture. And here is a book about cultural separation and bewilderment; about the seeming impossibility of bridging this divide. His themes thus emphasise the need to understand a culture in depth before one can appreciate what it is to misunderstand it.

As sparse as a Japanese woodblock print yet intricate as a piece of Mitsubishi gadgetry, this is a tale of bridge-building and reconciliation. Toshi, at 23, is a man whose life is riven between what he is and what he would like to be. He is Japanese, yet yearns to be American. He fantasises about having a girlfriend like Audrey Hepburn, but slips into a disastrous relationship with a psychotic English teacher. He works as a Manga cartoonist, but wants to draw original designs. He lives in Tokyo, yet is constantly drawn back to Hokkaido, the remote island where he was born. His present is always at odds with his past.

The disjunction of Toshi's life is echoed throughout the world he knows - in the separation of his parents when he was a child; in the earthquakes that habitually shudder through his native land; in the contrast of furious, cosmopolitan Tokyo and remote, snow-covered Hokkaido. Everywhere he is faced with opposition and divorcement.

As Toshi's present intertwines with snapshots of his past, however, events carry him towards reconciliation and unity. As a child, he slept between his divided parents; as an adult he comes to span the divisions in his own life. He starts drawing the pictures he wants to; he falls in love with Hepburnesque American musician Lucy; he learns the truth of his background. Where Audrey Hepburn's neck once symbolised unattainable fantasy, it now represents the bridging of Toshi's divergent self.

The prose is simple and evocative, perceptive and poignant. Metaphors are occasionally pushed too hard - Toshi's childhood home is bulldozed while his mother explains that his past is not as he thinks - but that does nothing to upset the inherent poise and delicacy of the whole. Hope from despair, peace from confusion, wholeness from disunity - if only life were really as good as that.

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