Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake is an off-beat love story, narrated by a young muralist, Chihiro. Her mother has recently died, and anxious to leave behind what she feels is the restrictions of a small town, she has moved to Tokyo, now on her own. She’s relishing her new found freedom and spends much of her spare time just observing the environs of Tokyo from the window of her apartment. Soon she sees across the way a young man who is doing the same. They acknowledge each others presence and nod tentatively. Later they will meet and their relationship progresses at its own pace. Nakajima is slow to reveal himself, uneasy with people. He obviously has a troubled past. A brilliant geneticist, he too has lost his mother, and they begin to discover things in common. For both of them, the past illuminates the present.
Yoshimoto frequently has Chihiro revealing her yin-yang ideas.
Everything in life has some good in it. And when something awful happens, the goodness stands out even more – it’s sad, but that’s the truth.
When there’s a plus, there’s always a minus. If there’s a powerful light, the darkness that is its opposite will be just as strong.
There’s a balance at work here that can be comforting if you can get behind it
Chihiro paints murals for a living, although she’s unsure if she should consider herself an artist. She’s ambivalent about what she does, but takes pride in the art for its own sake.That she’s currently about to be engaged in painting a mural on a school-yard wall, a building that is in imminent danger of being torn down, tells a lot about her view of art and the impermanence her own impact on the world. Eventually, as Nakajima is emboldened by his emerging trust in Chihiro, he invites her to take a trip to a rural lake and shrine where he spent his formative years. This is a big step for him, and he needs Chihiro to accompany him to visit the friends he has there. He’s full of trepidation, but senses he needs to do this for himself, but also to move his relationship with Chihiro along, to finally reveal himself, and begin to explain how he has come to this point in his life.
The friends at the lake are Mino and Chii, a mysterious brother and sister living in seclusion. Chii is virtually in a coma, never leaving her bed, and does not speak, except through the mouth of Mino. She’s a seer and startles Chihiro with her uncanny words. Chihiro’s experience from her visit with Nakajima gets her creative juices flowing and she throws herself into her mural. The visit also unlocks Yakajima’s secret which he shares with Chihiro in an emotional revelation. But it’s an eerie meeting and has the feeling of a dream. One almost senses that the lake, the shrine, the cabin are a dream, a hallucination of Nakajima’s. Later when Chihiro goes back to visit them by herself, part of the reason is to confirm that the visit really happened, that the place actually exists.
Maybe that place never existed, it was all a figment of Nakajima’s imagination. Could it be that the two of them, Mino and Chii, were no longer living?
Yoshimoto’s prose is spare and flowing, with what always seems like an undercurrent of ennui. And the characters are fragile creatures, Chihiro and Yakajima supporting each other as they face their past and the future.
Here we were, two ridiculously fragile people, sliding along on a very thin layer of ice all the time, each of us ready to slip and take the other down at any moment, the most unsteady of couples – and yet I believed what I had said. It would be all right.
The yin and yang theme is not just expressed in some of the thoughts of Chihiro. It’s there in the emerging unity and complimentary compassion that these two souls share.