Winner of the Akutagawa award, the most prestigious Japanese literary prize, this book might confuse English readers. Although billed as a novel, the book is actually a collection of 6 short stories, 5 of which are interconnected. Set in post-war Japan, these stories describe a husband and wife struggling to make ends meet as they face poverty, death, and the husband’s past—his shame in the blood. He grew up as the youngest of 6 kids, enduring his siblings’ suicides and disappearances. At the start of the book, he only has one sister left, a handicapped girl who is virtually blind.
I thought these stories were well written and well done. Each one focused on a different aspect of the couple’s lives, and I liked the backtracking done in the later stories (though some might find it jarring). After doing some research, it seems the book itself did not win the Akutagawa Prize, but rather the first two stories which apparently were bundled originally as a single novella (makes sense, since the Akutagawa Prize isn’t for novels, it’s for novellas, and the second story, though capable of standing alone, carries on the story of the first one about the main character falling in love and attempting to have a child). Ultimately, however, this short story cycle seemed unfinished, ending chronologically on a cliffhanger.
The final story concerns a different family. It was over-written and baggy, never seeming to be able to decide what its real focus is. Overall, though, it’s still a decent story, and although the characters are different the themes provide a coda of sorts to the preceding pieces.
The main problem here isn’t with the writing or the translation. I think the originally novella alone was too short to justify publishing it, and even with the inclusion of the additional stories from the cycle it still wasn’t substantial enough (not to mention feeling unfinished; I have a suspicion that the author didn’t write the stories with the intention to form a single work, since they all stand on their own and there’s no real resolution), necessitating the final story.
To repeat, despite what the marketing says, it’s not a novel. Approach the book with this in mind and it’s an engrossing read. Plus, the author had family problems similar to those detailed in the first 5 stories, which makes these stories all the more interesting.