The Ghost Ate My Homework

How a scrapped review spawned a much wider reading list.

The Ghost Ate My Homework

“Is The Premonition review still coming?” my editor asked me long after the October 2023 publication of Banana Yoshimoto’s latest novel. Like a kid putting my head under the covers to become invisible, I’d hoped to be forgotten.

Making matters worse, I initially hadn’t even been assigned the review; I requested it. Contemporary Japanese fiction? A young woman haunted by hazy childhood memories? Surely, just my cuppa matcha! During the pandemic, my son introduced me to author Hiromi Kawakami with Strange Weather in Tokyo, and she’s become a favorite. So, I was curious about Yoshimoto, widely read and celebrated since her 1988 novel, Kitchen, and ordered The Premonition.

Somehow, I’d missed the award-winning author, perhaps because she gets lost in translation limbo, with years-long lags between Japanese and English publication dates. Yoshimoto is prolific; she’s published more than 50 books in Japan since 1986. She’s been translated into more than 30 languages, but only 12 of her books are available in English. The Premonition was published in Japan in 1988, when the author was 24. Now, 35 years later, it appears for the first time in English.

The book arrived, and I read it right away. A brief novel, The Premonition is a family story of known and secret loves, remembered and hidden losses. It’s a spectral mystery, playing with mistaken and slightly fabricated identities across the permeable border between this world and the next. Daughter of the late poet Takaaki Yoshimoto, Banana Yoshimoto crafts prose that is spare, often beautiful, and gently funny, too. Looking back on a fateful road trip to a sacred Buddhist site known for its bleak landscape and volcanic activity, the book’s protagonist, Yayoi, wonders, “What had possessed them to visit the gates to the underworld on a family vacation?”

But despite the psychological mysteries, the fine writing, and the humor, I was vaguely disappointed. Yayoi and her family and friends felt elusive, slippery — a little too much like spirits. Authorial intent? Possibly. Intrigued, before starting the review, I decided to read more Yoshimoto. Procrastination perhaps, but I prefer to think of it as Research.

I checked out the author’s translated novels and story collections available at my library: Kitchen, Asleep, Moshi Moshi, and Dead-End Memories. All share themes of elegiac romance and lost love — sometimes illicit, sometimes incestuous — persisting beyond the grave. Bittersweet, serious-funny, short, and easy to read, the books are a bit addictive, like literary comfort food. (Yoshimoto, who worked as a waitress while writing Kitchen, does include lots of mouthwatering food — one of several similarities she shares in style and content with the late Laurie Colwin.)

Research complete, I remained disappointed. It might’ve been a side effect of bingeing Yoshimoto, but her stories and characters seemed repetitive. Over my decade of reviewing, I certainly haven’t loved and raved about every book. But I’ve never missed a deadline, and this time (although I kept meaning to just sit down and do it), I defaulted. My editor contacted me. I made shamefaced apologies, took the incomplete. She let me off the hook. And that, I thought, was that.

Returning the Yoshimoto books, I visited the library’s fiction stacks. The binge had stirred up a craving to re-read Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel laureate. His Thousand Cranes was on the shelf. I checked it out and slipped the slender paperback into my bag for a weekend trip with my husband to New York City — good train reading, easy to carry.

Thousand Cranes takes place in a shabby tea cottage in the back garden of protagonist Kikuji’s deceased parents’ house. His father’s mistress, with whom the son had an initiatory affair, has just died. Her daughter, Fumiko, brings him the tea bowls his father and her mother once used:

“The two bowls…were like the souls of his father and her mother…three or four hundred years old, life seemed to stretch taut over them, in a way that was almost sensual…Kikuji felt they had raised two beautiful ghosts and placed them side by side.”

Throughout the book, every word of dialogue, every scene, every article of clothing, every object matters. Each character is unique, indelible. The combined effect is quietly devastating. I finished Thousand Cranes as our train reached Manhattan.

Sunday, in pouring rain, my husband and I took shelter in the Asia Society’s Modern Meiji exhibition. There, I encountered a pair of scrolls painted on silk in 1901, artist Fukada Chokujo’s “Ghostly Couple.” Two spirits, an elderly man and woman, bodies vaporous, almost translucent, faces sharp and distinct, seem to lean into the space between the scrolls. Side by side, together but separated, pining for each other eternally.

The spell cast by Thousand Cranes and “Ghostly Couple” has lingered, leading me to reconsider Yoshimoto’s approach and choices, her style, as she pays homage to and popularizes timeless themes both culturally specific and universal. So, gentle reader, the ghost ate my homework. Instead of a review, I offer this menu suggestion: Read The Premonition as an appetizer and Thousand Cranes for your main course.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, Historical Fiction. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.

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