[I decided to read this novel in two halves. When I wrote about the first half, I didn’t know what was coming in the second.]
12 October 2017
First half – as far as tea and biscuits in the café
Chan, in case you’re wondering, is an affectionate add-on to the names of children and family members in Japan and, to quote a Japanese etiquette website I’ve just found, ‘is also used for adults who are considered to be kawaii (cute or loveable).’ This, then, is the story of little Yuki, a young woman who has booked herself on to an organised trip to Bronte Country for reasons of her own. She seems to be the only one under pensionable age, and after she has spent half a day in Haworth trailing around after the others it slowly begins to emerge why she’s come. Her mother took a holiday there once, and Yuki has been able to pinpoint quite easily where two or three photographs in her possession were taken. Fine. But who cares? I’m only half-way through, and things might get better… but, as for a quote from a Financial Times review on the cover – ‘the kind of book you can’t stop reading and don’t want to finish… often very funny and strangely touching’ – well, not for me.
I imagine that what some readers will find touching, to use the FT’s word, is our growing realisation of Yuki’s sense of loss. I don’t know how the chronology works, but we know that at some time her mother died of drowning. Yuki, with the help of a mysterious local girl who seems to have decided to help this Japanese oddball, has located the reservoir in another of the photographs and, despite the cold – it’s winter – she has stripped to her underwear and walked into the freezing water. She thinks ‘If I want to see her and understand where she’s been all this time’ she has to go for complete immersion, for as long as she can bear it. It’s about as logical as anything else she does – she seems to have been locked into perpetual childishness by the loss – and I don’t think that’s where the drowning happened. I might be wrong.
I think I know what my problem is. I know that Mick Jackson is a middle-aged man from the North of England, which means that I find his use of a very particular young person’s idiolect to be simply alienating. I never, ever, forget that this highly specialised version of the third-person limited narrative form, with its (presumably) deliberate Americanisms, is a very careful construction. So I don’t believe in his main character. The end.
Not the end, obviously. A small part of me is intrigued why Mick Jackson has decided to write exclusively from the point of view of this foreign ingenue. She seems to have arrived with an idea of England based on tourist clichés, and the novel opens with what turns out to be a flashback to an early disappointment. It’s impossible to get a decent photograph of the ‘Post Office Tower’ – it hasn’t been called that for decades – because it’s too far away or too close. ‘You can try standing directly below it, but the concrete base just gets in the way.’ This is in the opening paragraph, and we have no idea who this ‘you’ might be, seeking out this ‘icon of her beloved Swinging Sixties.’
But it isn’t only her point of view that’s limited. She muses on cartoony little projects to put things right, like a restoration of the building’s revolving restaurant or – wait for it – underground airports leading to high-tech elevators beneath the country’s tourist hot-spots. Fine… but the way Mick Jackson has her present these schemes to herself as somehow viable makes me wonder what he’s playing at. I mentioned the idiolect he utilises, and it’s that of a seven-year-old. We assume at first that ‘Yuki chan’ must be a child, and I can’t remember when it becomes clearer that she isn’t. She has a sister who lives and works in London, who is clearly often exasperated by her behaviour. The morning after Yuki has left a drunken message on her voicemail – she has deliberately missed the tour bus and has booked a room at the same guest house her mother stayed at – she returns the call. While she tells her ‘little sister’ off, the little sister doesn’t listen. A mark on her forehead – she left a head-torch strapped on there all night – makes her wonder if she’ll have to wear a beanie for the rest of her life. ‘Or grow a ridiculous fringe.’ To shut her sister up – ‘I’m lying through my teeth,’ she thinks – she promises to be in London that evening. A child.
So, arrested development, brought about by the trauma of losing her mother? A grown woman still looking for a mother substitute (of whom there have been two or three, including the sister)? Mick Jackson’s attempt to convey a sense of alienation through a character as unlike himself a he could imagine? And why do I still not care?
Your questions answered (see previous paragraph): Yes. Yes. Yes. Because why would I? Stuff happens, with the volume turned up quite a bit higher than in the first half, and Yuki comes to realise, sort of, that however hard you might search for meaning in the death of a loved one, you won’t find it easily, if at all. More than once – twice, I think – she expects that finding a particular location, and placing herself exactly where her mother must have been, will somehow ‘complete a circuit.’ It never does, although the circularity of things seems to have become a theme by the end. Mick Jackson is a literary novelist who has been on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, and I’ll come back both to that, and to some of his themes and motifs. Meanwhile, at least Yuki’s experiences enable her, eventually, to recognise something in herself and in her relationships with those who are close to her. Could it be that the long-delayed process of her growing up might have been kick-started at last? Is she not only sadder but also wiser? Well, maybe.
What happens, among other things, is that her trust in Denny the mystery girl grows hour by hour. We know almost as little about her at the end as we did when Yuki first noticed her standing and looking as she climbed back over the Parsonage wall. (Yuki had climbed in to try and have a snoop around, but failed. Mick Jackson reminding us, I guess, that she doesn’t get anything right on her own, at least in the early part of the novel.) Denny seems only to be in her teens, but looks almost appalled when Yuki wonders aloud why she isn’t at school instead of wandering about the village. A few things we do know about her are that she knows how to ride the motorcycle she says belongs to her brother, is well used to using a powerful air-pistol, and answers to nobody. Except for whoever telephones her in the middle of the night after a day of adventures in and around Haworth.
Adventures. Following the dip in the lake and the warming hand-drier at the café, there’s the search for a windswept tree in the last of the photographs. All they achieve on their first attempt is the discovery of a sheep, recently savaged to death – by a wolf, Denny speculates, as we wonder at her own childishness. She has her air-pistol hidden on the bike, and with it she scans the moor for a wolf or wild dog. When a dog does appear, making its way to the carcase, she puts two and two together: they had scared it off, and now it’s come back. But… with its owner? Really? In the end, after it has been worrying at the dead sheep and Denny has fired at long range at its female owner’s ‘ass’ – it’s always ass in this novel, not a word that Mick Jackson would use himself – it chases them. They can only just get to the bike in time, and the dog manages to bite Yuki through her trouser leg.
It’ll be all right, won’t it? No, and they have to get it seen to at the local surgery. But… what to do about the tree? Well – and you’re not obliged to believe any of this if you don’t feel like it – following an illicit entry into the room in which her mother stayed at the guest-house, Yuki doesn’t feel any kind of psychic circuit being completed. There’s another flashback, in which we learn that she managed to get to see the collection of spiritual photographs at the Psychical Research Society in London. Her mother had visited there during her own trip, and now Denny mentions that Yuki’s guest house used to be run by a woman with a reputation as a psychic. She had never made a big thing of her gift, but a famous Japanese spiritualist, working with a photographer, had once visited her when she was a little girl. Yuki recognises his name when the woman herself mentions, it after Denny has found an unlocked window at the top of the fire escape outside the nursing home where she now lives. What are the chances? Yuki’s mother – who, we later discover, thought she had the same gift – must have stayed with her for that very reason: both the spiritualist and the photographer were mentioned by the curator at the psychics’ society….
The old woman tells them about the excursion she made with the Japanese researcher and the photographer to where the windswept tree stands. There are enough details for Denny to recognise where it must be. But other stuff happens – this is after they have been chased, again, this time by the angry chief nurse at the nursing home – and I can’t remember why they don’t quite make it there. But Yuki goes there on her own in the middle of the night – after Denny has been summoned by phone, perhaps to go home – and, as she tries (and fails) to make herself as one with the tree, she nearly dies of exposure in the snow. Meanwhile…
…there’s been another Japanese-linked thread going on for chapters now, about the formation of snow crystals. (‘Yuki’, as it happens, means snow. Or happiness.) Yuki has been obsessing for a long time about one particular scientist who was able to synthesise them in the laboratory, and she loves his massive book of different types of crystal development. And all because, as we come to realise, her mother died not in water but out in the snow somewhere. Up on the moors, imagining that there’s some psychic link between her mother and this tree, she almost suffers the same fate.
But she doesn’t die, and finds herself back in her room. She calls Denny, or Denny guesses she must need her help and arrives anyway, and she is finally able to get warm. Fine. But her search for her lost mother has been a wild goose chase, and she realises she won’t ever close those circuits here. Ah, so it isn’t going to be the sort of novel that ends with solutions found and loose ends neatly tied up. Mick Jackson, the author of literary fictions, never made any such promises. However, Yuki is finally able to make some connections of a different sort. She telephones not only her long-suffering sister but also her father. His caring, understanding way of speaking to her makes it seem strange that she has never managed to talk to him before. Presumably, we are supposed to guess that her fixation on the details of her mother’s death has always got in the way….
So it’s only now that she learns that her mother had always suffered from mental health problems, had tried to commit suicide before she seems to have suddenly left her car ten years ago, with its door open, and wandered off into a blizzard. What was she thinking of? Was it – and here comes one of those circles – the little girl she was always looking for? She had lost her own mother, and… what? I might have got this wrong, but somehow she, Yuki’s mother, was the little girl. She was the one left motherless, and it seems that she often thought that the little girl was somehow present. Yuki decides that it was the little girl she must have followed into the snow. And it’s shortly after this that she decides she is going to get back to Japan as quickly as she can, and spend some time with her father.
So it’s all sewn up, yes? Yuki doesn’t need a mother-substitute any more, because she has a father who cares about her and a sister who has suffered just as much as she has, in her own way. Except… having promised Denny that she wouldn’t leave Haworth without saying goodbye, that’s exactly what she does. Nothing is fully resolved in this particular literary universe, as Mick Jackson makes it clear that Yuki has a long way to go yet.
How does it end? (I’ve genuinely forgotten, so I’ll check.) Ah. She has been talking on her phone to Denny, and has told her that she has left Haworth. ‘You promised, she says, you promised me.’ (There are no speech marks in Jackson-land, it seems.) Yuki’s reply, as she realises they will almost certainly never meet again, is ‘Denny. You’re my friend.’ And the car she is in, getting a lift to the station by the owner of the guest house, ‘carries on along its path through the snow [….] On, then on again.’
And if that isn’t a self-conscious homage to the last line of The Great Gatsby, I don’t know what is: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
Mick Jackson was able to write this novel thanks to a grant from the ‘The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.’ I learn from its website that it ‘works to enhance the mutual appreciation and understanding of the people of Great Britain and Japan at the popular level.’ I think they should demand their money back. Aside from snow and spiritualism – and who’s interested in them anyway? – there’s nothing of Japanese culture in it. A novelist like Ruth Ozeki in A Tale for the Time Being really is attempting to shed some light on the strangeness of Japanese culture in Western eyes. Mick Jackson could have chosen a woman from Mars for all the insight he brings to this novel.