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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lights on, but who's home?


By ANNA KUNNECKE
THE EIGHTH DAY, by Mitsuyo Kakuta. Kodansha International, 2010, 256 pp., $24.95 (hardcover)

The first half of this book is told from the point of view of Kiwako, an office worker who kidnaps the baby of her married lover after being pressured into having an abortion herself. She passes through love hotels, bullet trains and ferries; she encounters crazy people and joins a religious cult; she cleans floors, takes care of the child, and evades police. It's hard to believe that tabloid fare such as this could be boring, but it is.

Kiwako is completely flat and affectless, neither torn by regret nor fueled by a particular love. She wants to keep this baby, she tells herself over and over, but it seems more like a verbal tic than a passion born of any kind of deep maternal instinct. Because this part of the story is told through the eyes of a woman who is obviously fairly mentally ungrounded, I thought that perhaps the hazy tone — like a movie seen through gauze — was a literary device. Unfortunately, when the story switches to the voice of the child, all grown up 18 years later, the tale continues in the same monotone.

Perhaps the fault is in the translation. Or perhaps the syntax and rhythm of the Japanese simply doesn't carry over well into the rhythms of English. The tenses shift irritatingly between past and present, and the language is strangely childish and stilted. Consider this representative exchange:

"What I want is a future," I said. "A future to spend with the child I've had. A future no one can take away from me — that's all I ask.''

Or this interior monologue:

"A tear fell from my eye. There was no use in me crying too — how stupid can you be!"

This is the extent to which the characters are developed, and it is not nearly enough.

At one point a character says that the women who join the mysterious religious cult "rarely think about anything very deeply; they are unquestioning; they don't assert themselves," and unfortunately the same seems to be true of the central characters. They don't grapple with themselves in any interesting way, and more importantly, neither does the author. Instead of exploring what this blankness means, the author seems in its thrall. At each turn of the plot there is a kind of mild bafflement on the part of the heroines: Oh look, a train station. Maybe I'll ride to Okayama this time. That blankness could have been interesting material if the author had delved into the implications of this foggy passivity, but she seems content to ride along and occasionally point out some pretty sparkles on the water.

The title refers to a conversation Kiwako has with her kidnapped daughter when the daughter discovers that cicadas sleep underground for seven years and come out to live for seven brief days. What, Kiwako imagines, would it be like to be a cicada who lived for one extra day? "On the eighth day, that cicada gets to see things that the others didn't. Maybe it wouldn't want to see them, but they probably wouldn't all be so horrible that it'd close its eyes to shut them out." This thought is repeated several times like a refrain, and obviously has great resonance for the author. But it doesn't reveal enough, and whatever poignancy she was trying to convey doesn't come through.

The most vivid image of the entire novel is when the children gather around a circle of empty cicada shells. The dry amber husks are surely meant to be a metaphor for these hollowed-out women, but unfortunately without the life and fire that once inhabited them, it is hard to care about them very much.



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