Harper Perennial, 2010
354 pages, plus extras
The premise of Malena Watrous’ novel, If You Follow Me, is inviting – a novel about a young American woman who moves to a small, rural town in Japan to teach English. A multi-cultural adventure, a coming of age tale, both the kinds of stories I generally enjoy. But there is an almost overwhelming darkness to this novel, a sense of sadness that seems to permeate everything about it, even the humor, which ultimately detracted from my enjoyment.
Marina, the main character in the novel, has come to Japan partly in an attempt to recover from the her father’s death by suicide. She seems lost and aimless in her lackluster relationship with her students, with her fellow teachers, and even with her girlfriend Carolyn whom she has followed to this town of Shika, a backwater place in the shadow of a nuclear power plant. It’s not surprising that their relationship falters – neither woman has a firm grip on her sexuality, and seem to be clinging to one another for all the wrong reasons.
The town (and by association, the country of Japan) is portrayed as a very constricted, unwelcoming place. Marina is continually running afoul of the gomi (garbage) police, flaunting the myriad , restrictive rules for disposal of waste, a theme that permeates the novel and begins to wear thin before very long. The local newspapers report the number of crimes committed each year by “foreigners.” Marina is told that “Koreans commit the most crimes. Then Chinese. Americans don’t commit so many. But there are not so many Americans in Japan.” When Marina suggests that “most of these crimes were probably simple failures to follow the rules,” her companion agreed, but added “For the Japanese, there is little difference.”
The Japanese characters in the novel are unique and interesting, even if they seem mostly desperate and unhappy. Marina’s students vary from a huge, silent boy who has been bullied into deep submission to a rap star wannabee complete with an Afro and blackface. And while the cultural references didn’t inspire me to book a flight to Tokyo, they were fascinating to read. Since the author actually lived and worked as a teacher in this very town, one would imagine that the locale is represented quite authentically in all its oddities. In an essay entitled Alien Encounters of the Closest Kind, Waltrous writes:
It’s a generally accepted that truth is stranger than fiction, and in rural Japan this is certainly the case. Japan, a nation known for it’s uniformity, is also a mecca of wierdness, proof that the pressure to conform breeds eccentrics.
It was fun learning some Japanese phraseology, too, which is sprinkled liberally throughout the book. My favorite ~ shitsureishimashita, which (literally) translated means I have committed a rude. And Watrous’ writing kept me reading, even when the storyline started running dry.
If You Follow Me was reviewed for the TLC Book Tour.
The author’s website is here.