January in Japan 2021

Obviously, I am not really in Japan this January. It’s amazing how just one year into this pandemic how alien travel and the idea of travel has started to feel.

As much as there are restrictions on real travel, book travel can proceed without restrictions, quarantine and risk of catching Covid. So, read the world people. Break out of your British/US literature prison and go explore.

The lovely Lauren (https://www.instagram.com/end.notes/) and Rachael (https://www.instagram.com/anovelfamily/) are hosting #readtheworld21 and with it we are back to Japan this January.

I have been reading Japanese fiction in translation for a long time. When I was 16, I became obsessed with Taiwan but there were precious little books available, so the librarian suggested I try some Japanese books in translation. That was over 30 years ago.

For Christmas, my husband got me the Japanese short story collection published by Stranger Press as individual chapbooks and so they underpin the reading for January in Japan this year. I also finally read Tokyo Ueno Station and I loved this novel so much. I think it will occupy my thoughts for a long time.

Yet, what I want to talk about today is Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura (translator Philip Gabriel – this information was way too hard to find and I find it awful that the publisher makes ZERO mention of the translator on the website. Can we make it a rule that both the translator and the cover designer are mentioned on the publisher’s website?)

I have seen a lot of discussion online about whether this book is Young Adult or not. There is always a part of me that is frustrated by this type of discussion. The wholesale dismissal of a book simply based on the age group it is apparently written for always seems ludicrous to me. Yes, I don’t read a lot of Young Adult myself, but if I find a premise interesting then I will pick up a book regardless.

So, yes, I would say this book is aimed at teenagers. The protagonists are teenagers, the issues that are dealt with are teenage issues (bullying at school, sexual violence against teenager, exclusion from education, fear of school etc.) and that to me makes it a book mainly aimed at teenagers.

We meet Kokoro, a young girl about 13 in her first year of High School, who after an incident that we slowly find out about, refuses to go to school. Her parents try to be understanding, try to figure out what is going on, but it is difficult because Kokoro only shares the physical symptoms – a terrible stomachache at the thought of going to school – with them and not the root cause.

It’s interesting how the author introduces us to Kokoro at a very slow pace. It’s like she is initially a bit out of focus and only gradually can we see her more clearly. A tremendous bit of writing to achieve that with such subtlety and grace.

One day, Kokoro’s mirror starts to glow and as she touches it, she moves through it into a castle where she meets a “wolf girl” calling herself the wolf queen and who promises her adventure and the fulfilment of a wish. Kokoro is freaked out and rushes back through the mirror into her room, but curiosity gets the better of her and she ends up returning to the castle.

The book moves at a slow pace which I thought was very apt for this kind of story. When you are so wrapped up in your head, your own problems, your own anxieties, it will take time to unravel what’s going on around you, it will take time to place trust in those you meet, it will take time to change. And so to me the pace of the book absolutely matches the story Mizuki Tsujimura is telling.

As a parent of a 14 year old girl, my heart was with the parents. Especially the mother. That was the part of the story that broke my heart repeatedly, because I understood how lost the mother was. Parenthood is uncharted territory and dealing with the pain of your child is something that you never get used to. And mental health issues caused by bullying at school, I mean what do you even do? It’s fraught with mistakes and poor judgement coming from a place of simply wanting to make it all better. This part of the novel hit me hard.

This is not a fairy tale, despite the premise and despite the reference to fairy tales. The castle is not a magical place where dreams come true and you fight dragons. The demons are you own, you have to deal with them in the real world. I love how subtle Mizuki Tsujimura used the purpose of fairy tales – giving children the ability to understand confusing and difficult emotions that they can’t really properly process in this safe space of a story – in her story. The castle was that safe space for the characters in this novel which equipped them to deal with the demons in their real life.

It’s fair to say that this novel touched me. It broke me, gave me hope, I cried, and I laughed. So this adult is glad to have read this young adult book. Maybe give it a try at some point.

Author: Melanie

I read, I eat (and cook) and I like to go places.

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