Heinemann, £12.99, 304pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Who is Mr Satoshi?, By Jonathan Lee
Friday 13 August 2010
Robert "Foss" Fossick is a middle-aged photographer, the classic, grizzled, down-at-heel anti-hero who draws the curtains to choke on life's ennui. He rejects any distractions from friends who could suture his psychological wounds. Instead, he chooses to numb his pain through prescription drugs and apathetic moping.
His mother's death compounds his misery but sets the narrative wheels into motion. Her will mentions the elusive Mr Satoshi, her childhood sweetheart, now living in Japan. Foss is asked to deliver some correspondence to him, so, cajoled into action upon the promise of freelance work, and led by a mild curiosity beyond his own problems, his journey leads him to the Far East. There, he uncovers the mystery of his mother's missive. Subconsciously, he also learns to love again.
This debut from Jonathan Lee, who conceived the novel while posted with his City law firm in one of its Japanese offices, is confident, sharply-written, and refreshingly direct. Its story melds ancestral letters, diplomatic reports and Foss's inner conflict.
Japan is rendered in a "blur of neon, vast television screens pointing down, full of global dots" where one can see "reflections multiplied and merged on a labyrinth of cubes and cones and pyramids" on the horizon. Tokyo is, of course, a descriptive writer's dream and Lee is not cowed by that culture's omnipresent and exhaustive literary heritage; he instead revels in his character's conflicts.
Undoubtedly, the author's one-time alienation in Japan lent this an authentic bent. A frustrated photographer's eye is also a convenient and clever way of framing streets bleached into homogeneity by neon. The relationship between Foss and the student Chiyoko is a personal highlight. She is an appealing, likeable distraction as Foss stumbles into dead ends and twists through skeins of plot.
Their dialogue is playful and well-observed, moving from flirtation to mistrust, exasperation, and ending up with something deeper. A small criticism might be that sometimes Lee's phraseology is plastered on in several layers. But such evocation is never obstructive. For the most part, it emphasises Foss's detached state of mind.
More experienced authors might milk drug-addled protagonists for all they're worth; Lee's subtlety in this regard speaks volumes of the appeal, depth and maturity of his central character, as well as his writing.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
- 2 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 3 US? China? India? The 10 biggest economies in 2030 will be...
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens trailer: The most extreme fan reactions on Twitter
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling