If you ever visit Bookbar in North London and encounter its owner Chrissy Ryan you will discover it's impossible to leave without at least one new book under your arm. And of course I'm not someone who needs a lot of encouragement so I left with a few more than that. But top of my stack was this, which Chrissy loved and said had transported her to Tokyo. As someone who has visited Japan a few times – and indeed had a trip planned when lockdown struck – I was curious to read more.
'Mizuki is a Japanese housewife. She has a hardworking husband, two adorable children and a beautiful Tokyo apartment. It's everything a woman could want, yet sometimes she wonders whether it would be more fun to thrown herself off the high-rise balcony than spend another evening not talking to her husband or hanging up laundry. Then, one rainy night she meets Kiyoshi, a successful restauranteur. In him, she rediscovers freedom, friendship, a voice, and the neon, electric pulse of the city she has always loved. But the further she falls into their relationship, the clearer it becomes that she is living two lives – and in the end, we can choose only one.'
According to the back jacket flap Itami grew up in Tokyo before moving to London where she now lives. One of the very pleasing things about this book is the way that it somehow manages to bridge the gap between the experience of a Japanese person living in their native city, and that of the gaijin, or foreigner – basically everybody else. I think in part this is achieved by the way not everything is explained. Food is often mentioned, for example, but Itami almost never translates this, you either know what she means or you don't. Parts of Tokyo are described with just enough detail to give you an impression if you don't know them, and to remind you if you do. It manages to be both an insider portrait and have an aura of exoticism at the same time.
As a mother of three unsurprisingly I also loved the protagonist, Mizuki, once a successful nightclub singer, now urban mum, required to be the textbook perfect wholesome mother but dying inside. 'Sometimes', Mizuki thinks, 'living in the world created by my children, knowing them better than I know myself but still finding them baffling, I feel like the rest of the world is nothing but shifting sands around me. I read somewhere that the twenty identifiable traits on the Hare psychopathy checklist apparently don't count in children, since they tend to display all of them. These include poor behavioural controls, irresponsibility, superficial charm, parasitic lifestyle, need for stimulation, lack of realistic long-term goals and impulsivity. I suppose it's unsurprising one might question things sometimes, being in a state of indentured servitude to two small psychopaths.' 'Yes', I thought, 'yes!'.
If I was being ruthless I'd have to say the character of Tatsyua, the husband, wasn't as well-developed as Muzuki's as a result the arc of their relationship felt unrealistic to me. As a result the ending might have disappointed me but Itami had built up so much goodwill through my sheer delight in her writing, her brilliant and acute observations on motherhood and the relish with which she created Kiyoshi, the perfect lover, I didn't mind. I was happy to take this story in the spirit with which she presented it to me and had no desire to pick holes in it. So not one for book club, I guess, I feel too protective of it, but definitely a hugely enjoyable read I thoroughly recommend.
Buy Fault Lines from Bookshop.org
Further reading: Tricky to recommend follow-ons without hinting at the plot of Fault Lines, which I would hate to spoil, but Mizuki and Tatsyua might both have benefitted from reading The Course of Love, Alain de Botton's novel that looks at what happens to the heady excitement of first love when faced with the dull routine of everyday life. A love story for the modern world, chronicling the daily intimacies, the blazing rows, the endless tiny gestures that make up a life shared between two people – Laura and I may have disagreed on how much we liked this book, but were in complete accord there's no finer writer on the subject of sulking.