BOOK: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous (2010)


When I was in the sixth grade, I spent a year living in Iwakuni, Japan (my dad was in the Marine Corps and there’s an air base there), a tiny little town in southern Honshu.  Ever since that incredible experience, which I could talk about for hours, the memories are still so sharp, I’ve loved stories about Japan, especially ones about outsiders — gaijins out of water, so to speak  — who are confronted by the unique, often beautiful and befuddling cultural aspects of that unique country.

I found this novel sitting on the “free paperbacks” shelf at my local public library a while back and snatched it up when I saw it was just such a story, and, man, am I ever glad I did.  Despite the fact it’s got some problems — more on those in a moment — this is a highly entertaining novel, and one that feels extremely authentic too (partly because it’s based on the author’s own experiences).  Even better, it really took me back to that extraordinary year of my youth, and I loved the excuse to reminisce with myself about it.  (Oh, the Hello Kitty.  So much Hello Kitty. SO MUCH HELLO KITTY!)

The protagonist is a 22 year-old American woman named Marina, whose father recently committed suicide.  The emotional whirlwind that triggered makes it impossible for her to stay put, so she and her new girlfriend Carolyn, whom she met in a bereavement support group, decide to apply for jobs teaching English in Japan, each landing gigs (at two different schools) in the tiny village of Shika.

Shika is initially a respite for Marina, as she relaxes into the distance between her new life and the ghost of her father, but as she begins to settle in a bit more, the culture shock starts to take its toll and haunting memories and what-ifs about her dad flood back in.  Turns out, you can’t run away from grief, a lesson Marina is about to learn the hard way.

Complicating things are the radical differences between American life and Japanese life.  First of all, there are the convoluted, impossible-to-decipher “gomi” rules, which have to do with garbage disposal (it’s a tiny island, after all — they don’t go in much for massive land fills over there), rules she can’t seem to get straight. This perpetually ticks off her neighbors, who keep complaining to her boss, who then keeps passive-aggressively writing her uncomfortable Japanglish letters about all her transgressions (he doesn’t want to “do a rude,” but he can’t seem to help himself).

Then there are all the Japanese people Marina works with every day at school — people she struggles to understand less in terms of the language barrier and more in terms of the sociological and psychological cultural constructs in Japan, which are far more foreign to her than Kanji characters ever could be.

Some of the parts of this novel that were a particular delight to me were things I remembered well from living in a small Japanese town myself, including the early morning blast of music coming from the factory down the hill, where the employees would gather outside before the start of the work day to all do calisthenics together, as well as the complexities of grocery shopping, where a failure to pay close attention can result in the regrettable purchase of a cantaloupe.  Did you mean to spend $35 on a melon?  I bet you didn’t.

Outside the pleasure of my own memories, there is also a moving, beautifully-written subplot about a little boy at Marina’s school whose older brother suffers from severe autism and who desperately wants to get away from his family and start a new life somewhere “else.”  The “else” he tries to get to appears to be the afterlife, though it’s not clear the little boy fully understands that (as he’s rocketing down a snowy hill on a sled headed straight for a tree).  The passages in which we watch him tighten his fists and rail against the struggles of his agonizing life — a six year-old boy, mind you — will stay with me for a long time, as will his mother’s terrified embraces every time she catches him as he starts to fall.

I also loved that each chapter opened with a Japanese term and its definition — one that would ultimately end up relating to the part of the story to follow.  One of those terms was “wabi-sabi,” which was not a phrase I’d encountered in Japan, but was definitely a familiar concept.  In the Girl Scout troop I was in that year, we spent an afternoon with a Japanese potter, who told us that, traditionally, Japanese potters would throw away or break pots they made that appeared to be flawless — because imperfection was what made a pot truly beautiful. This concept ends up being a pervasive theme in the novel — the notion of perfect imperfection. It’s a concept I really, really like, and one I don’t think we have over here in the U.S., where we constantly seem to be pushing for improvement in all aspects of our lives, rather than simply embracing our things/ourselves as they are.  A lovely philosophy, that one.  I aim to try to cultivate it.

Speaking of wabi-sabi imperfection, this is not a flawless novel.  In particular, I found the subplot involving Carolyn and Marina’s relationship frustrating.  What starts out as a complex  and intriguing element of the story, a relationship between two people who come together in one of the most painful emotional states there is (grief) and try to shake off that pain using each other primarily as a distraction from it, becomes increasingly unimportant, with Carolyn fading more and more into the background in a haze of jealousy and anger.  Meanwhile, both woman end up falling in love with men — men who have “rescued” them in various ways, both practical and metaphorical.  That was a bit on the disappointing side for me, I confess.  Though, perhaps it’s realistic; what the hell would I know.

Aside from that, though, I found this book engaging and entertaining, and loaned it to my mother the moment I was done, knowing would she would enjoy the triggering of so many memories of our own Japanese life as much as I did.  Anyone who has ever lived in Japan and loved it will find a lot to like here, and anyone looking for a good, simple “summer read” should throw this one in their pile too, I’d say.  Recommended!


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One Response to “BOOK: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous (2010)”

  1. Sonia Lal Says:

    It sounds interesting, especially the issues she has with sociological and psychological cultural constructs in Japan.

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