Mercedes-Georgia Mayes | Literary Review Editor
Amrita was written in 1994 by Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto and translated into English by Russell F. Wasden in 1997. One of her earlier works, Amrita helps establish what would come to be associated with Yoshimoto in its preoccupation with youthful feelings of discontent, and a blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality in youth.
At its core the novel follows the life of Sakumi, a young adult navigating the loss of her younger sister only to fall down and incur a severe head injury in the months that follow. Having lost her memory as a result of this, Sakumi carries on with her day to day existence just trying to get by and find the happiness her sister could not. She struggles, discovering that her brother possesses clairvoyant powers amid the chaos of her lost memories, but she is bolstered by the people around her, new and old, through her journey of recovery.
The story is slow and steady, consisting of several key instances recounted in the first person by Sakumi. The story hosts a jarring blend of the mundane and the extraordinary, at times seeming out of place in the grander narrative, but it consistently grounds its action in the commonplace interactions seen between Sakumi and her friends and relatives. It boasts a host of wonderful characters and locations, all painted out in fine detail by Yoshimoto, with highlights including: Yoshio, Sakumi’s younger brother, tormented by the burden of clairvoyance at a young age and struggling to adapt to the next stages of school life; Eiko, an old friend of Sakumi, facing the difficulties of sustaining an affair with a married man; and Sakumi herself, bringing all of the eclectic figures she meets together through her travels. It spans across the urban and rural landscapes of Japan and abroad, juxtaposing the mental states of its characters with their environments to great effect in order to underscore the effects of the city and nature on mental wellbeing.
It is truly a unique composition, written with the intent of capturing the marvellous in the everyday and thus blending realist conventions with the content and tone of the supernatural. Nevertheless it is not perfect, and at times the novel itself seems to be struggling amid the chaos of its characters. Some of this difficulty of style does come with the territory of translation, some of it comes with the disjointed nature of the events described, and as a result it was difficult to labour through the initial chapters. However, though Yoshimoto herself claims that the novel is naïve, there is an ever-present charm to the scenes chosen from Sakumi’s life which sustains the reader throughout. Perhaps, like the unusual and amazing events that take place within the novel, it is best to treat it as a temporary stop, a sight unmissable, but unable to shake the foundations of everyday life.