After the success of her last novel A Day on the Planet, which was adapted into a film, Shibasaki Tomoka is back with the novella Spring Garden, which excretes little in the way of emotion, affection or concern about its characters. With little in the way of narrative or plot, Spring Garden is very much a self-consciously Japanese work about Japanese architecture which incorporates characters that seem almost two dimensional, adding an unintentional element of Ghibli to this somewhat mundane yet short story.
Protagonist Taro is divorced, disliking his work, and residing in a half-empty building that is about to be dismantled. One summer morning, he sees a fellow resident climbing over the wall to the next-door house. Nishi invites herself inside. It emerges that her fascination with this blue house began in her student days twenty years before, and came from a book of photos called ‘Spring Garden’ from decades earlier. As the summer draws to a close, Nishi, Taro and the new family that has moved into the old house bond and drift, giving the reader a sense of their whole life in a few vivid snapshots.
All in all, it’s a markedly short read that screams Japanese. Lovers of Murakami will most likely appreciate this title, but unfortunately it was too shallow a read for my liking. The prose is interesting, as are the ideas Shibasaki touches upon, but the character development is lacking and there is nothing of particular striking about the book that would encourage me on to reread it. It’s a quotidian, almost banal tale, which disorientates the reader with its switch to first person near the end of the tale.
This tale of companionship from Shibasaki, who has previously won the Akutagawa Prize in 2014, was translated by Polly Barton. The themes of contemporary Japanese literature are widespread in this work, streamlining the writing in a manner reflective to that of art, architecture and in this case, relationships. It’s just disappointing that the writing does not allow for the reader to invest themselves in these characters and their measured interests and routine.
Spring Garden was published by Pushkin Press on 26th January 2017