About the Book:
Lucy is a budding journalist at Northwestern University and she’s obsessed with an exotic new student, Owen Ota, who becomes her lover and her sensei. When he disappears without explanation, she’s devastated and sets out to find him.
On her three-month quest across Japan, she finds only snippets of the elegant culture Owen had described. Instead she faces anti-U.S. protests, menacing street thugs and sexist treatment, and she winds up at the base of Mt. Fuji, in the terrifying Suicide Forest. Will she ever find Owen? Will she be driven back to the U.S.? Gaijin is a coming-of-age story about a woman who solves a heartbreaking mystery that alters the trajectory of her life.
The prologue of this novel opens with a promising lure which is backed up by the first few chapters. The writing is crisp and fast paced and the initial setting up of the story grabbed my interest. Unfortunately, this wasn’t sustained and a small portion of the blame can be attributed to the blurb not matching the story, to the point of leaving me wondering what book I was actually reading.
I’ll address the location first, where the blurb states that the character embarks on a three-month quest across Japan. In actuality, she moves to Okinawa, which is a Japanese prefecture comprising more than 150 islands in the East China Sea between Taiwan and Japan’s mainland. This distinction matters because Okinawa is not just another part of Japan and the cultural experience is vastly different. Indeed, upon her arrival in Okinawa, tensions are at boiling point between local Okinawans and the Americans who live there on the military bases. A teenager from Tokyo has accused an American serviceman of rape and this has in turn activated protests about the ongoing American military presence on the island. Lucy, the main character, as a journalist working at an Okinawa newspaper (not trekking about Japan as inferred, nor is she a budding journalist straight from university, but rather she was a graduate who had been working as a journalist in Chicago) becomes privy to the case. Lucy’s experiences in Okinawa from the outset are not positive, and she is constantly reminded by those around her that Okinawa offers the most un-Japanese Japanese experience. We, as readers, are then given reason after reason to find this place abhorrent. The anti-Japanese sentiment that seeps through these parts of the story is uncomfortable and almost gave me cause to abandon the novel. As the story continues, it swings from being anti-Japanese to anti-American without ever settling on a stance. In a novel set in a place that is seething with racial discord, I felt like it never really revealed its position, which is to its detriment as there was a lot of potential for digging into these relations and the history of the island, which in all honesty, would have done much to raise my interest levels in the story.
The blurb also states that Lucy’s Japanese ‘lover’ Owen disappears, and this provides the motivation for her relocation to Okinawa. Far from her lover, Owen is a young man Lucy developed an obsessive crush on, with the exchange of an awkward kiss, a Japanese tea ceremony, and a penned Haiku all that actually lay between them. Hardly the basis for an international move. Frankly, I thought it a rather baseless springboard for a plot. The more we learn about Owen, via Lucy insensitively ingratiating herself with his brother, the more bizarre Lucy’s obsession is revealed to be. Her realising that for herself later on offered no real redemption for the plot and the ‘twist’ about Owen fell flat. A plot driven by love is never my favourite, but it’s a whole lot more credible than a plot driven by a made-up one-sided relationship.
But wait, there’s more. Moving on from the misrepresentations in the blurb, it’s in these next two points that my real issues with the book lie. I wasn’t aware that the US had a present-day military presence in Okinawa, but they do and there is a myriad of problems that come from it. In particular, the high rate of sexual assaults perpetrated by American servicemen against local women. Take a quick read of this:
‘She went on to say that eighteen percent of Okinawa’s land was in use by military bases, cordoned off by fences, where U.S. soldiers lived and worked. Anyone associated with U.S. forces can go in and out of the gates freely.
“Okinawans must stay outside the gates. If you look at it this way, you can see that all of Okinawa has essentially been handed to the U.S. military.”
“Handed to them?” I wanted clarification.
She took her time in responding. “Okinawa is an open target for those with evil intent. We are off the radar of many Japanese, who prefer to forget about us. We are off the world radar because we are so small and powerless.”
To my surprise, Hisashi spoke up. “She’s right, Lucy. Okinawa is exploited and ignored.”’
With an issue such as this, which is based on facts (you don’t have to dig deep into the research to uncover a lot on this topic), there was so much potential for this novel to be a real platform for raising awareness and valid discussion, yet this section quoted is at the 88% mark of the book. Everything to do with this issue is mentioned and glossed over in favour of concentrating on Lucy’s, quite frankly, very boring and delayed coming of age. The rape allegation at the beginning of the novel and the ramifications extending through to the court case just seemed to take a sidebar. Instead of being a political and social narrative, the novel seemed determined to drive itself into a very different and much less substantial pigeon hole. Clearly, the author had some interest in this issue as it provides the seeds of the story. I just can’t understand why those seeds weren’t given the chance to fully flourish.
And now we are at my final point of contention, although this last one is honestly the real reason behind my low rating. So, Lucy finds out that Owen, her imaginary lover, after leaving Chicago and returning to Tokyo, took himself to a place called ‘Suicide Forest’, an actual place located on the north-western flank of Japan’s Mount Fuji, and attempted suicide.
‘The rumour, he said, is that the forest is infected with sorrow down to the tree roots and the dirt. Some say the forest itself has taken on the pain of the people left there to die and that it holds their misery captive somehow, so a depressed person finds it easier to kill himself there.’
Similar to her obsession with Owen, she becomes obsessed with visiting the place, so much so, she pushes his brother to take her there. I will freely admit that this is a case of my own personal life experiences shadowing my opinions of a book, but the insensitivity of a person being pressed into a journey to the place where their sibling attempted suicide, like some pilgrimage, is so abhorrent, it beggars belief that anyone would even think of such thing, much less work it into the plot of a book. This entire section of the novel, where they actually hike into Suicide Forest, only to make a grisly discovery within, was nothing more than gratuitous macabre sensationalism. That this place exists is utterly tragic; it should not be used as a backdrop for entertainment.
I am so disappointed in this book which had the potential to be so much, yet delivered so little.
Thanks is extended to Running Wild Press for providing me with a copy of Gaijin for review.
About the Author:
Sarah Z. Sleeper is an ex-journalist with an MFA in creative writing. Gaijin is her first novel. Her short story, “A Few Innocuous Lines,” won an award from Writer’s Digest. Her non-fiction essay, “On Getting Vivian,” was published in The Shanghai Literary Review. Her poetry was published in A Year in Ink, San Diego Poetry Annual and Painters & Poets, and exhibited at the Bellarmine Museum. In the recent past she was an editor at New Rivers Press, and editor-in-chief of the literary journal Mason’s Road. She completed her MFA at Fairfield University in 2012. Prior to that she had a twenty-five-year career as a business writer and technology reporter and won three journalism awards and a fellowship at the National Press Foundation. For more information, please visit https://sarahzsleeper.com and follow Sarah on Twitter @SarahZSleeper
Published by Running Wild Press
Released 6th August 2020