After a few work and personal projects calmed down, I decided to finally read a novel I had purchased in Kinokuniya a few months back: “My Beautiful Garden” (わたしの美しい庭) by Yuu Nagira (凪良ゆう).
As I tend to do with Japanese novels, I didn’t do too much research into this book before purchasing it. “My Beautiful Garden” was mostly an impulse buy based on the beautiful cover, nice title, and a good impression of the first few sentences. I hadn’t read anything by this author before, and there wasn’t much detailed information on the cover, so I started with a fresh outlook and few expectations. This contrasts to my native English reading, where I generally do more research and am pickier, but it’s nice because I end up getting wider exposure to a variety of Japanese literature than I normally would if I only read books I was fairly certain I would like.
“My Beautiful Garden” is about the intermingled lives of a handful of main characters, and the story is told from a different character’s point of view in each major section. The main characters are connected in various ways (a father and daughter, relative of a boyfriend, etc.), and I think it’s fair to say each of them has their share of trauma, whether it is a problem about their identity or some bad event that happened in their past.
The story takes us through a few major events in the characters’ lives as they build relationships and make realizations about life and themselves. There are a few flashbacks (which I am generally not a huge fan of), but they were done well in this book.
Connecting all the characters is a special shrine that sits on the top of a building with the nickname “縁切り神社”, that roughly translates to “The Shrine of Dissolution”. People go there to ask the gods to remove something from their lives, whether it be a bad habit or even a person.
I thought the characters’ emotions––visible through their actions, dialog, and internal monologues––were described very adeptly and realistically, and by the end I felt I really got to know each of the main characters and understand their points of view in depth. One of the characters was LGBT and while I have read books with gay main characters before, this was the first for me with such a detailed account of the difficulties involved in being LGBT.
At a few times through the story I thought the dramatic events were a little unrealistic, and I even predicted one or two critical turning points (which normally I am not very good at). But nevertheless the drama helped propel the story forward.
This novel addressed some important topics, such as the gap between self and society, and the role of family (whether blood-related or not). Overwork and hierarchical societal relationships, things particularly relevant to Japanese society, were also addressed.
The language in this book was somewhat difficult, partially due to the long chapters with few breaks, and relatively slow pace by which events took place. A good portion was dialog, but that became a little hard to follow at a few points due to the various situations and emotions involved. But what I couldn’t stop noticing through this entire book was the advanced level of vocabulary used by the author. Despite my experience with a variety of novels, I was constantly looking up words I’d never heard or read before. But I actually enjoyed this since I was learning so many new things, and I also got the expression many of these were slang words or at least words used in daily life that you wouldn’t find in a textbook. For example, 祠 (hokora) which means a small shrine.
I always search out books that have a good sense of daily life (生活感), and this book was perfect, almost to the point where I felt like I was living in Japan, or at least learning things I would not learn except through the experience of living in Japan.
Due to the difficulty of this novel I would not recommend it for Japanese learners who have not tackled a few easier adult-level novels first, but if you are at the level where you think you might be able to handle it, I think this is a great book for getting a taste of various aspects of Japanese culture and literature.
Personally, I favor books with more unusual settings (fantasy, SF, surreal, etc.) and higher-paced action, so I can’t say I loved the story of “My Beautiful Garden”. But I was glad to read this book because of all the cultural and linguistic things I learned, and I also enjoyed the author’s beautiful, refined prose, which was very different from any book I’ve read lately (keep in mind I read a lot of classic literature in my search for new translation projects to publish). If you are the type of person who prefers stories with a real-world setting that focus mainly on character’s emotions and internal dialogue, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this book even more than I did.
In closing, to give you a taste for the style I’ll give a brief excerpt along with my (unofficial) translation, from page 44.
Smiling and making small talk, the effect of the drinks gradually kicks in. Our minds flow as they please through the ever-fluctuating conversation. Sweet pomelo, fruit juice, gummy candies, sweets bursting in our mouths, fireworks––ideas that somehow connect, only to be forgotten minutes later. A pleasant time without responsibility. That is the beauty of alcohol.
For a short time, I don’t have to be responsible for my words or actions. I can just comfortably go with the flow, without the need to try and force anything. Ro gives me that vibe, and it feels good to talk to him. But I’ll never tell that to anyone.