When I requested this book from the publisher on Netgalleys, I had no idea it was 880 pages long, and I probably wouldn’t have requested it if I’d known. But I thought, well, I might as well give it 50 pages and see what I think. After 50 pages, I was reading happily, and I read happily until the end. Now I miss being in the world of the book. It’s not that the book is unputdownable in the way that long, plotty novels can be, exactly, but it’s absorbing and draws you deeply into the world the author evokes.
It’s described as a retelling of Wuthering Heights, set in Japan, which is largely true, although it doesn’t follow the plot of Wuthering Heights exactly, and there is much more to it than that. But it is about a long love affair between a Heathcliff-like man, Taro, and a Catherine-like woman, Yoko. Taro disappears from home for many years and makes a return just as Heathcliff does, among many other parallels. The parallel to Wuthering Heights that I liked best, though, was the novel’s use of multiple story tellers and embedded stories. Where in WH, we get Nelly Dean telling us the bulk of the story, in A True Novel, it’s Fumiko who narrates much of it. She is first the maid to Yoko’s large extended family, and later more of a friend. There is also an equivalent of Lockwood, the first narrator in WH, in this case, Yusuke, who meets Fumiko accidentally and finds himself unexpectedly drawn into her story. But there is another layer beyond all this, which is the author herself, Minae Mizumura, or someone very much like her, who tells us how she found out about the whole story. This forms a lengthy prologue before the main part of the novel begins.
All this sounds complicated, but, of course, there is plenty of time for Mizumura to develop all her story lines. We begin, surprisingly enough, among Japanese immigrants to the U.S. living on Long Island, where Mizumura meets Taro, her novel’s hero. From there, however, we move to Japan to read about Fumiko’s history and Taro’s and Yoko’s youth and family life, and we learn a lot along the way about Japan from the World War II period through the 1990s. The novel has much to say about the struggles the Japanese experienced after the war and how the ups and downs of Japan’s economy affected their daily lives. We get a picture of Tokyo and also of the countryside, of poor families and of wealthy ones.
The novel offers a chance to think about the relationship of reality and fiction, a preoccupation announced in the book’s title — a “true novel” is perhaps oxymoronic, perhaps not. The author starts with what seems to be autobiography or memoir, and then moves into the lives of her “characters,” one of whom she has met in “real life.” So is all of this “real”? But this real life story is a retelling of sorts of a novel from 19thC England. Added into the mix of fact and fiction are photographs sprinkled throughout the book of landscapes and places mentioned in the story. In case you start to feel as though you are reading a fictional story (which of course, you actually are), the photographs are there to ground you in “reality,” or something like it.
Again, described this way, the book seems like a messy tangle, but that’s not what the experience of reading it feels like. Instead, you feel like you’re drawn into a complex, fully-realized world, a book that explores ideas and history and tells a good story at the same time.
For a lengthier, more detailed discussion of the book, see The Complete Review’s take on it.