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Monday 28 February 2011

Book Review : Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara

To outrageously paraquote (there I go again, coining new words.  The language is simply not big enough for me I’m afraid), a rather famous Liverpudlian, discovery of gems is what happens when you are planning on buying other books. The other day I was in my favourite bookstore in Ireland, No Alibis in Belfast, scouring the shelves for slabs of hardboiled detective fiction to feed my insatiable lust for all things noir and crime related, my eyes landed on a thin little book that was sitting prim and proper but seemingly ignored on one of those plastic stands on the shelf nearest the window. Snakes and Earrings by the Japanese author, Hitomi Kanehara.
To my shame, I tend to be conservative when it comes to crime literature. The lion share of my reading is set in the Anglophone world of the United States, Ireland or the UK but I thought I’d stretch my self-imposed limitations and take a chance on Snakes and Ladders.

And I am very glad I took that chance. Set in the countercultural underworld of Tokyo, we meet a nineteen year old Lui, a young lady  who embarks on a relationship with Ama, a boy she meets at a bar. Lui belongs to the Barby-girl subculture with an penchant for body piercing, although she repeatedly eschews the association throughout the book. Ama is the exact opposite, dressing in black, netted, sleeveless tops a la ‘gangster’ wear and with more than a shock of dyed red hair. And yes, I almost forgot, he has a forked tongue. Not in the Fianna Fail politician (For my international audience, Fianna Fail are the outgoing party of government in Ireland. Imagine Berlusconi but without the girls or unintended humour) sense of the meaning but in the physical body morphing sense. The fellow actually has a forked tongue; split like a serpent’s according to bifurcation techniques involved fishing lines and piercings.

Ama however, is a lost soul, in need of love. He and Lui become lovers and she moves into his apartment after deciding to embark on having her tongue split as well as a sign of her commitment. Through Ama, she meets Shiba-san, a talented tattoo artist but with a scarily wide range of idiosyncratic sexual peccadilloes and psychoses. Lui falls under his spell and decides to get a tattoo of a Kirin¸a mythological dragon, that would cover almost her entire back.
While out walking with Ama, they are accosted by a small group of well dressed young men. Ama, taking offence, starts a fight. All but one of the young men run for it and Ama beats the lone ranger up in a very prolonged and vicious manner before  being dragged off by Lui as they make a run for it while the sound of police sirens come perilously near. They escape and their lives resume their normal pace but shortly after, Lui hears a radio news report off a murder of a young man and that the police wish to question another young man with red hair.

Remember, this is Japan and not Roscommon so the number of people with red hair is thin on the ground. Lui forces Ama to let her bleach his hair under the pretence that she wants him to change his gangster image. At no point does she tell him about the police report. Not for the first time in the book, Ama’s fragile psychological state is alluded to and protected. She also tells him to eschew his sleeveless tops for long-sleeves to cover his tattoos.

In the meantime, Lui’s relationship with Shiban-san intensifies and becomes physical. He tells her that he would like to kill her and their sex becomes increasingly passionate, bordering on the abusive. I use this term deliberately instead of S&M. S&M implies a situation of completely unassailable consent amongst its participants whereas Lui gives the sense of acceding to Shiba-san’s demands out of fear. We learn that he is rather well built in contrast to Lui’s increasing slight frame. She fears Shiba-san but she freely visits him. The sense of her bewitchment or free association is tantalisingly ambiguous.

In parallel to her encounters with Shiba-san, Lui descends into alcoholism and anorexia, albeit of the high functional type. Ama tries to control this and locks up her booze and feeds her. While objecting to this, she accedes to his wishes and goes along with Ama’s need to play the paternalist. Is Lui in control by choosing to be controlled thus putting the controller off-guard for the time when she decides not to be controlled? I get this feeling from her and because of this, she is the epitome of what is the post-modern feminist i.e. dressing and behaving in a way that would make past generations of feminists apoplectic with rage, but doing so on her own terms.

Later, Ama disappears. Lui becomes ever more anxious and reports him missing. We learn that despite the intensity of her relationship with Ama, she doesn’t know his real name. Even Shiba-san expresses bemusement at this but Lui says she didn’t dig around in his life. This is telling. Theirs was a relationship based on the superficiality and vacuousness of physical appearance, fashion and the insubstantiality of their pop-culture belief system in what constitutes love.  Soon after,  Ama  is found dead, murdered having been brutally tortured and raped. Lui strongly suspects Shiba-san’s involvement. He is not only bisexual but has fantasized about killing a partner in coitus. However this does not repel Lui. Far from it, I sense she feels she is keeping Ama alive by fucking his murderer. This alludes to the ancient myth that is held almost universally, of something of the essence, the soul of the dead being subsumed by those who kill or consume eat it.

At the end of the book, Lui experiences what I believe to be an epiphany, a realisation of the torpor, superficial and the grub of her life. She looks in the mirror, opens her mouth and describes the state of her tongue, which is in an advanced progress towards the final splitting procedure.
“Was this really what I had been chasing after? A useless,  empty hole surrounded by raw flesh that glistened with spittle”.

This is more than likely a metaphor for her womanhood, her sense of what is left of her if everything is scraped away

Snakes and Earrings is a rather short book, just 118 pages in all. It’s more of a novella than a novel but who cares.  It occupies a world which coexists with us all but is at a remove, almost like that of ghosts. Tattoo parlours are common-place and are almost prosetylising. How many of us walk past the parlours and stare inside at a world so close yet subculturally, distant. We are intrigued, we are bemused. Some of us dabble our insipid toes into the exotic waters of the tattoo and succomb to the needle whose needle drips with ink as it quivers and drips while approaching our skin. Even the language of getting a tattoo for the first time is that of sexual discovery and experiment. It's the venue of 'you first, you first' as we push each other shyly towards the parlour door. Yet, bravery and self discovery is a lonely path we walk, its soundtrack the crescendo and quickening tempo of our very own palpitating hearts. 

The author had a story to tell and told it in a stark, pared-down narrative that never veered into the bleak landscape of disassociation or literary utilitarianism. How much of this is down to the process of translation, I don’t know but the style works and the story is lean, lithe and fit. It’s set a cultural world which the author seems to be very familiar with and is at a remove from our stereotype of what constitutes Japan. We only see the stereotype of the salary-man and the geisha for it is easier to consume and digest foreign cultures in bite-size pieces that are shaped like cartoons but culture, any culture, is far from simple. They are complex yet subtle, obvious yet subliminal. Foreign, yet familiar.
I highly recommend this book.

Snakes and Earrings is written by Hitomi Kanehara and is published by Random House.
ISBN  978-0-099-48367-0

Saturday 26 February 2011

Welcome to my entree into the blogosphere. My name is Patrick Martin and I am a crime fiction writer. I live in Belfast, Ireland and I have just completed my first novel Black Champagne, set in Chicago, USA, a town I have frequented many times over the years. While I try to get Black Champagne published, I am starting work on a second novel and also, some online projects such as my first ever Twitter novel whose first chapters (or should that be chaptweets if I be bold to coin a phrase).