Yesterday I had the great pleasure of finally meeting in person my long-time internet friend Michelle Bailat-Jones, whom you may know from the blog Pieces. She recently published her novel Fog Island Mountains and is traveling in the U.S. to promote the book. She appeared at the Center for Fiction last night to do a reading and reception. The Center for Fiction is a lovely venue, a small bookstore with a cozy, comfortable space for events upstairs. It was my second visit to the center and the first for an event, and I hope to return frequently in the future. Michelle’s reading was great, and in chatting with her afterwards, I realized that we both had been blogging since 2006, which means we’ve been internet friends for a long time now.
I was able to get an ebook version of Michelle’s novel before it actually came out, and so could go to the reading with the novel already finished. And what a great novel it is. I read it avidly and was caught up in the story as well as the beautiful writing. The novel tells the tale of a couple in a small town in Japan and their attempts to deal with terrifying news: that Alec, the husband, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Alec’s wife, Kanae, responds by running away — fleeing from the situation in ways both literal and metaphorical. How can one deal with the news that one’s husband will certainly die very soon? Mirroring Alec and Kanae’s emotional turbulence is the arrival of a typhoon that shakes their town and disrupts their attempts to come to terms with their new circumstances. The story is hers and Alec’s, but it’s also their children’s story, and even more so the story of an elderly woman Azami, who is the novel’s narrator. Azami is a mysterious figure who knows everything there is to know about the town (or she seems to at least) and watches over its inhabitants as well as healing hurt animals that come into her area. She hovers over the whole novel, occasionally telling her own story but also slipping into the minds and voices of the other characters to narrate their lives. The movement between Azami’s story and those of the other characters is seamless. There is an incantatory feel to the sentences, which are often made up of phrases piled on phrases, as though casting a spell over the reader. This passage gives you a good sense of the experience of reading the book:
It is evening now in our little town and the winds have settled, for now, for a few hours, while they regroup and gather off shore and over the ocean, preparing for their fury, but for now we are quiet, we can watch the sky and only wonder how it all will come about, and so now Alec is at his home, he has finished his afternoon classes at his little English juku, he has walked through town — past the butcher, past the new supermarket, past the garden shop, and past me where I was standing and waiting at the corner for the light to change; he even waved me a quiet hello.
From this paragraph, you can see how Azami positions herself in relation to the other characters, as a part of things, with intimate knowledge of what is happening, but still at a distance. You can also see how the prose pulls you in with its rhythms, and how this one long sentence quietly captures a full scene.
It’s all beautifully done, and I hope this book finds many readers. It’s off to a good start as the winner of the Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award. Many congratulations to Michelle!