Sunday, 23 November 2014

Fruit sinking in a sea of wheat

If I really don't like a book, is there any point in reviewing it? So far I've only written about one book that I didn't like at all. If other people like a book and I don't, then the odds are that either I just haven't understood the book or that the rewards it offers are something for a different audience. In the future, I may just not write about a book I dislike, perhaps find something to put in place of a review. For now I hope that the descriptive parts of the review below will be enough to tell a reader if the book might interest them. It seems from the internet to be a popular book, so my own lack of enjoyment is doubtless just a personal reaction.

麦の海に沈む果実 (mugi no umi ni shizumu kajitsu, Fruit Sinking in a Sea of Wheat, 2000) is a novel by 恩田 陸 (ONDA Riku, born 1964). Fourteen year old Rise (理瀬) travels by train to her new school, a private boarding school for middle and high school students that stands on an isolated hill in the middle of uninhabited fen country. The book is written in the third person, but a prologue indicates that the narrator is actually Rise, whom we follow throughout the narrative. In form at least, the book is a mystery, but it might be better to call it a kind of horror story. (That said, I dislike reading about boarding schools so much, that the Jennings books would probably register with me as horror stories if I read them again.)

The school proves to be extremely unconventional, and full of mysteries. The headmaster dresses, very convincingly, as a woman. It is a school rule that home life effectively does not exist. Children must not ask about each others' backgrounds. All are assigned to new 'families' of fellow students. Another rule is that every student must enroll in March. This singles Rise out for unwanted attention, since she alone did not come to school in March, but on the last day of February. Two children in Rise's new family had gone missing last year; and the others debate how they could have disappeared and if they are alive or dead. In fact an unusual number of students disappear every year, which the headmaster explains as transfers to another school. Whatever happens in the school, the headmaster disposes of it as he chooses. Effectively it is his personal kingdom, and such things as an external police force might as well not exist.

The various deaths and disappearances are handled a little like classical detective story puzzles; many of the conventions of the genre crop up. But it is clear enough that this is not meant to be treated as a classical detective story, and anyone doing so will only be disappointed. Unfortunately for me, it wasn't really clear how else to approach the story. A world full of things that don't make sense might be interesting enough if there was a reasonable expectation that they would make sense when we got to the end. I somehow didn't have that confidence, which perhaps saved me some disappointment, but made the 490 pages tedious work. It didn't help that none of the characters made sense to me either. Rise's role looks like an invitation to identification for young readers (she is bullied by the mean girls, admired by the popular boys while apparently unaware of her affect on them); but it is almost as if the book is an exercise in presenting a character as the heroine without giving them any actual personality.

From the appreciation at the end of the book, I gather that it is connected, in some kind of 'story within a story' game, to another book by Onda, 三月は深き紅の淵を (sangatsu ha fukaki kurenai no fuchi o, 1997), which I haven't read.

1 comment:

  1. Even if you don't like the book, I think a review is always useful to the reader and yourself, as long as you point out what you don't like about the book and why in a clear way. Readers of a review can then judge for themselves whether they think point A or B is also as a deal breaker / maker to them as to you. Personally, I don't like reviews that are so objective and devoid of any personal thought/emotion in them, as fiction (be it books/games/whatever), are a form of entertainment, so of course I want to know how the reviewer thought/felt about the book and why! This comparison doesn't go well with books, but occassionally you come across videogame reviews that might as well have been just a list of the technical features of the product as they tell you nothing about how the /experience/ is.

    I have much more trouble with books I feel /indifferent/ for, though I usually try to cover my bad writing with countless of cross-references to other books and looking /very/ broadly at themes handled in said books.

    I have little to add to Onda. I think I've only read MAZE, which had a great set-up and a great disappointment in the conclusion.