Two short books for the Japanese & Irish Reading challenges

While I hope to squeeze in more books for the Welsh, Irish and Japanese reading months that happen in March, here are two short reviews of two short novellas, one from Japan, one from Ireland…

Star by Yukio Mishima

Translated by Sam Bett

This was my first experience of Mishima, one of those sightly intimidating Japanese literary icons to the uninitiated. So reading a single short story, published in Penguin’s Moderns series, was the ideal way to get a taste of his writing.

Star was first published in Japan as part of a short story collection in 1961. It is essentially the musings of a jaded film star, as he does his day job, deals with fans, and tries to relax at home. The film star in question is almost 24, and at the height of his fame, yet the film he’s currently in is a second-rate ripoff of other popular Yakuza gangster films.

Rikio “Richie” Mizuno tries to be the consummate professional on set, but the adoring fans always trying to take his attention distract, and the actress he’s playing opposite needs more takes to nail the scene. He’d rather be lounging at home with assistant Kayo…

The mirror darkened: the part of it unoccupied by my reflection was filled in by the sad face of my assistant, Kayo Futoda – my constant companion, day in da out, always ready with my makeup kit and chair. She looked at least forty but as barely even thirty. Her two front teeth were silver, and she wore her air in a messy bun, with no regard for her appearance. While she let on like she was a moron quite convincingly and pretended not to get things, Kayo was in fact my accomplice, my partner in this artifice. To be honest, she was probably the better actor.

When a wannabe starlet actress inveigles her way onto the set they decide to write her into the film, but, she isn’t up to it and takes a drastic step leaving the film’s producers to spin it to their advantage. Richie’s feelings are driven further inside himself – to be only just 24 and that disillusioned – it’ll take strength of character and lots of positivity from Kayo to get him through.

It’s useless trying to explain what it feels like in the spotlight. The very thing that makes a star spectacular is the same thing that strikes him from the world at large and makes him an outsider.

This existentialist short novella was a super introduction to Mishima for me – I needn’t have put off reading him. Star was a fascinating read, and although I can’t agree with Richie’s views about the ugliness of his fans, you can understand how he uses those thoughts to distance himself from them. Kayo was an endlessly interesting character, who may be perceived as ugly on the outside, but not to Richie, who is the only one who really knows her, nor ugly on the inside. The brutality and ephemeral nature of fame is all there on the page though. I shall definitely read more Mishima.

Source: Own copy. Penguin Moderns, No 51, little paperback, 94 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

Foster by Claire Keegan

I read Keegan’s Booker shortlisted Small Things Like These, a perfectly realised novella of 116 pages, last autumn, being won over by her careful prose and the the optimistic ending of her story. I resolved to read her 2010 novella Foster, which Faber reprinted last year after the other’s success.

If anything, Foster is even more perfect, I simply adored it. The story is simple. One summer, a child is taken by her father to live at her uncle and aunt’s farm. Her mother is pregnant again and with a new baby due, it’s simpler to send this child away. The Kinsellas, John and Edna, have only met her the once, when she was tiny, and neither her Da nor Ma ever said how long it would be for either. Once delivered, Da is anxious to get away…

‘Good luck to ye,’ he says, ‘I hope this girl will give no trouble.’ He turns to me then. ‘Try not to fall into the fire, you.’

I watch him reverse, turn into the lane, and drive away. I hear the wheels slam over the cattle grid, then the changing of the gear and the noise of the motor going back the road we came. Why did he leave without so much as a good-bye, without ever mentioning that he would come back for me?

Luckily, the girl, who is never named, and the Kinsellas hit it off from the start. She finds a childless couple only too willing to nurture her and she is a willing helper. It’s not until later in the summer that she discovers why they are childless, and the reason for the aeroplane wallpaper in her room. To say she forms a strong bond with them is to understate the depth of feeling that develops between them. But school beckons as autumn nears…

Keegan captures the rural life on the Kinsella’s farm over that summer as seen through the eyes of a young girl perfectly – also the Kinsella’s relations with their neighbours, some of whom are rather inquisitive about the past. For the most part, the summer is idyllic and I was slightly reminded of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, in which a child summers on an island with her grandmother. A simply beautiful novella. (10/10)

Source: Own copy. Faber paperback, 88 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

21 thoughts on “Two short books for the Japanese & Irish Reading challenges

  1. A Life in Books says:

    What an excellent way into the work of a writer you’re not sure about. I read Mishima when I was far too young and thought I should but a short story seems a good way to try again.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      This short story was long enough to just about be a novella, which allows a little more space, so perfect to meet the author. I will try more now.

  2. Elle says:

    I haven’t read any Mishima shorts, just one novel (The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea), which was wildly disturbing and sort of put me off. Maybe I should try again—Star sounds good!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was a perfect novella in its simplicity, and so beautifully written. On Mishima – I’ll give him another go sometime.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Keegan’s two novellas are both such wonderful short reads. As for Mishima, I have Beautiful Star in my piles now for the future.

  3. thecontentreader says:

    Mishima sounds great. So many Japanese writers are popping up. One writer that keeps popping up is Claire Keegan, have to try one of her books. She seems to be popular.

  4. Liz Dexter says:

    Two good ones there! I keep thinking Foster has a horrendous child abuse theme but I’m not now sure it does. Certainly keen to read it after loving Small Things so much!

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