Happy new year! I hope that it has started well for all of you, and that you enjoyed the holidays. I am embarrassed to see how long it is since I last posted anything here. The past few weeks have been a blur of work, travelling, talking, having a cold and erm boozing. I spent Christmas with my parents and one brother and his family in England, and very lovely it was too. But last night I dreamt that I was at James-Bond-themed party for bloggers – you were all there, building towers and cities with toy wooden blocks – hosted by Roger Moore; it reminded me that I really ought to write something.
And what better way to start the year than by writing about a novel I absolutely loved? Here is the opening of Fog Island Mountains, the début novel of Michelle Bailat-Jones:
So this is our town, our little Komachi, this little cluster of businesses and houses settled into streets carved out of this volcanic soil, and crisscrossing each other, as we do, as our lives intersect from business to house to supermarket to hospital. And here, today, the wind has already begun to blow, a warning of the approaching typhoon. We are used to these storms, even if they have predicted this one will be big. They say this often, and often they are wrong, although I prefer to be careful, I will tape my windows and buy extra batteries for my flashlight. Because when they do hit, when they strike down on our clumsy structures and on our inept and inelegant lives, these winds do not show much mercy.
Until this great wind comes, the weather will be unstable, as we always are, not needing the excuse of pressure changes or ocean currents. We will watch the sticky, drizzly rain, the green clouds and gusts of wind that hit hard but do not build, not yet, these pre-winds will blow through town and leave us all hanging, waiting, leave us in an uncomfortable stillness, a trapped moment of matte imasu. Yes, waiting. The waiting is the hardest part, and here is Alec Chester, one half of the subject of my poem, of this story that I must tell—don’t worry about me yet, we will get to me soon—and he is watching through a window, watching out to avoid looking in, watching to calm his waiting.
I think this extract gives a good flavour of her style: fluid, precise, concerned with the subtle fluctuations of thought and emotion. The subject, a family’s reaction to a diagnosis of terminal illness, is not one that might strike one as immediately attractive, but while melancholy this is not at all a depressing book: it’s beautiful, but in a restrained rather than a heart-wrenching manner. I’ve read a couple of novels recently which disappointed me a little because their endings felt forced, subject to the demands of the plot, but every development in Fog Island Mountains seems to follow naturally from the characters, making it, for me, very satisfying. Even Kanae’s behaviour, though shocking, is the convincing outcome of her profound feeling that Alec’s death, his forsaking of her, is a form of infidelity.
The Fog Island Mountains are a volcanic mountain range in southern Japan and the place where Alec Chester, an ex-pat South African, has made his home for almost forty years. On a day when the inhabitants of the small town of Komachi await the arrival of a big summer typhoon, Alec is told that he has terminal cancer. He receives the news alone, because his wife Kanae has failed to accompany him to the doctor’s appointment. In fact, unable to face the truth, Kanae hides away and betrays Alec. Meanwhile, Alec and Kanae’s three grown-up children struggle with their own sorrow as well as their mother’s behaviour. When he checks himself out of the hospital and vanishes into the gathering storm, they – and the townspeople of Komachi – fear the worst.
Taking place over a few days, the novel is structured around the different phases of a typhoon, culminating in ‘Landfall’, when the strongest part of the typhoon strikes the land. The typhoon acts as a metaphor, I think, on several levels, but most particularly it reflects the suppressed and only partially understood emotions of the two central characters: ‘They [Alec and Kanae] are the words and this storm.’ It also allows us to see them in a larger context, as part of and subject to the forces of nature. Weather, mountains, forests and wild animals press constantly in on the ordered life of the small town and thwart human intentions. All of this helps the reader to accept what will happen to Alec.
The story is narrated by an old spinster, Azami, who devotes much of her time to caring for wounded wild creatures. She relates it to the Japanese myth of kitsune, which means ‘fox’ or ‘fox spirit’. I don’t know a lot about kitsune, but very crudely they are foxes who can take on human, usually female, shape. Often they marry a human and bear his children, staying loyally by his side for many years until discovery or harassment by dogs drives them back into their fox shape and they flee. There seem to be lots of stories about them as tricksters or seductresses. Kanae, an otherwise strong person, behaves a little like kitsune, but the mysterious Azami has kitsune elements too. We learn a little about her from her memories of her past, brought up by her grandparents, but much of her life remains hidden from the reader.
Although Azami narrates the story, it is told in close, almost stream-of-consciousness style which exposes the characters’ innermost thoughts. Thus as fictional characters they have no privacy; as inhabitants of a small town, their business is soon known and discussed by everyone, broadcast on the local news. If kitsune fear exposure, the novel, with its examination of character and event, is their enemy.
Near the beginning, Azami writes that Alec is ‘one half of the subject of my poem’ and the text is laid out with white space between practically every paragraph, so that it does indeed look like a prose poem while reading as a novel. The long, flowing sentences draw the reader on, but the white spaces encourage the reader to pause and circle back into the preceding paragraph. This gives an unusual rhythm to the text and pushes one to reflect on each block of words, paying the kind of attention that is often only bestowed on poetry. The action is unhurried and pays attention to small details, shifts of thought, the making of tea, the falling of rain.
When Azami reaches the ambiguous end of her tale, she starts again:
I pull out that first sheet of paper, and I am reaching for my pen and thinking hard for that first word, and when it comes to me, it will all come so easily, and there will only be one story to tell, and it is this one, and so I begin...
This is a tale she is always writing and rewriting. Azami’s obsession with this one story made me wonder if in fact it was her own, and that in a way she was an older Kanae? In any case, her presence in the text and her comments remind us that this is a construction, hovering between the written and the oral, even as, submerged in the characters’ consciousnesses, it feels ‘real’. Atmospheric, profound, this was the deserving winner of the Center of Fiction’s first Christopher Doheny Award.
She’s been coming for as long as I can remember, this same fox, her auburn face now nearly white, and if I am calm enough, if I am quiet, she will let me come near her, and if you were to enter my garden at this hour, you might be surprised by the sight of an old woman with her hand settled carefully atop the head of a fox...
(I can’t stop quoting!)