Book Review: Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara

This seems to be a very divisive book. Some people like it, a lot more hate it. I had read a bit about the book and the characters before I dove in, so perhaps because I knew what to expect I liked it more. SNAKES AND EARRINGS won the Akutagawa prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Japan, when the author was 20, and became a best seller. It reminds me of Bret Easton Ellis or Ryu Murakami (who headed the prize committee that gave her the prize) in that the content of the book is meant to shock and confuse readers, but it is not pointless.

The plot concerns Liu, a “Barbie-girl,” who becomes infatuated with a man with a forked tongue named Ama, and decides to get a tattoo and have her own tongue forked as a result. Passions fly, murders are committed, and an odd love triangle forms between Liu, Ama, and the tattoo artist, one more grounded in possession and masochism than any form of love.

Liu needs violence to thrive. Without it, she becomes bored and depressed, a shell of what she once was. As a result, she is incredibly self-destructive, seeking out new forms of violence and never putting up any form of resistance. She does not care how much she knows about a person, only if they are violent or not. We barely learn anything about the characters as a result, only hearing about Liu’s parents in a short paragraph on page 118 of this 120 page novella. Some people might not like this, and in a longer work having less than engaging characters would get on my nerves, but here, because of its short length, it works. Many have complained about the ending and how the characters don’t act like real people, but I really didn’t mind; it fits in with the rest of the story, in my opinion. Besides, the book proves early on that its character do not act like people in the real world, expecting them to act like that at the end is negligent on the readers part.

(I actually found the ending to be the high mark of the book. After pages of sex and violence, in the last forty pages a sense of mystery, of tension forms, and it becomes impossible to put it down. And in the last few pages…I can see why the conclusion does not work for everyone, but I was blown away.)

Another common complaint is the translation. Although it is probably a stylistic choice of the author to have the characters act in ways far removed from reality, the dialogue makes them seem like paper thin dullards, always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I’m giving the author the benefit of the doubt, because most times I felt that if the dialogue was worded slightly differently, it would make complete sense. The prose is god awful, too. It’s stilted, boring, and never adequately describes anything. Given the author’s young age there are probably some hiccups with the original writing, but I find it hard to believe a work so terribly written won one of the most prestigious Japanese literary prizes and became a best seller, so I’m assuming much of the fault lies with the translation.

I’m forgiving the writing due to the ending, which takes up 1/3 of the text. It’s a great book, and a shame the translation is so awful. Hopefully another one will be made some day. As it is, anyone with an interest in Japan, Bret Easton Ellis, or Ryu Murakami will find something worthwhile here.

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Book Review: Shame in the Blood by Tetsuo Miura

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.