Thoughts Fog Island Mountains by Michelle Bailat-Jones, Tantor Media 2014, 171 pages
Winner of the Christopher Doheny Award.
THREE WORDS: Evocative, Heart-achy, Powerful
I have admired this author for many years for her insightful reviews, back when she was just another unnamed book blogger (aka Verbivore – Incurable Logophilia) and now award winning author! I always seem to think of “Verbivore” when I come across titles by Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer or Michel Houellebecq; because we have had conversations about these authors I still remember. The power of book blogging! (I still haven’t actually read anything by Houellebecq. FYI)
So, what’s this ABOUT: A man from South Africa, married and living in his wife’s native Japan, has taught English for many years in a small mountain town. When the book opens, he is told that he has cancer of a kind that might take his life much sooner than later. His wife is not with him when this diagnosis is shared by the doctor, who happens to be a friend and English Language Learning student of the man. The fact that his wife is not with him is strange. Where IS she?
Well, let’s just say the wife doesn’t handle a few things at all well and we have the three kids to meet and learn what they are up to, their reactions to their father’s news. And a big BIG storm is about to hit – we must take precautions, we must take care.
Marriage, tragedy, communication, family, grief.
I must say that this book is by far one of the oddest books that I have read and thus is hard to describe. It has a tone and incomparable style. The author is American who lives in Switzerland and translates books from French. I *think* I read that she grew up in Japan? (yes, in the book endnotes she thanks her parents); she truly is a world traveler and has had many multi-cultural experiences. This book demonstrates her worldly view balanced with a very specific setting and culture — is captivating in its details.
“… and although it is a selfish thing, he knows this, he has always known this, he was not watching old man Inomura, he was reaching inside his own chest and testing the strength of his heartbeat and building up the walls around his eyes that would make it possible for him to witness these deaths, year after year, again and again, and he would not see the person anymore, he would only know his own beat, beat, beat, and feel safe in its strength.”
This book could be eligible as a RIP X read because it has elements of fantasy with retellings of Japanese folklore, specifically of the fox-woman. I knew nothing of these tales so if you do, you’ll likely be in for a real treat. But also know that if you do not know Japanese folklore, you can still be enthralled by Fog Island Mountains.
What’s GOOD: Mood, tone, style, brevity, density. It happens in real-time. Loooooong sentences. The viewpoint is omniscient yet narrated by one of the town citizens. Aha! just WHO is this narrator?
This book is always just a step off balance – it is supposed to be. Occasionally, the reader is brought into the story. There are many diverse and minor characters; their development explorations felt genuine. The storm that hits the island could also a character. It really is a fascinating story-telling.
“Let us give her this moment, let us turn away, because the relief in letting herself cry will be ugly for us to look it, we can step outside the door so as not to hear her whimpering, we can stand here a moment feeling the force of the wind and the sound of the crashing up in the forest, and when she’s ready, it won’t be long, Kanae has always been the stronger one, we can step back inside and see that she has already gotten herself up off the floor, she has dropped Alec’s shoes to the floor and she is dashing through the house to her bedroom.”
Also good, the book has a Glossary of Japanese Words!
What’s NOT so good: The symbolism is over my head; I’ll just say that. I also questioned – and this may be cultural and certainly personal (for me) – a statement (or two) that parents should love their children more than their spouse. I agree that there are varieties of love but degrees of more or less or in comparison are just in bad taste. There I said it. I found a few sentences quite jolting and it was a theme (a minor theme? – no other review I’ve read even mentions it) but it was evident in more than one place in the text. Perhaps this point alone will pique your interest to read it. It certainly isn’t a flaw but only something I sensed that I disagreed with on a philosophical note.
FINAL thoughts: I am glad to have read this. I congratulate and celebrate with Michelle Bailat-Jones on this stunning debut novel. I love novellas and this one is fabulous, really.
No mention of pie that I noted. So why Lemon Meringue? I’ll let you guess.
This book has one of those fun coincidence links to H is for Hawk with a scene in the beginning when our narrator rescues and renders aid to a …. a hawk! Cool, right?