Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
2:42 PM 7th June 2021

The Smell Of Lemons: Japan Stories By Jayne Joso

It is fortunate that a knowledge of Japanese culture is not a prerequisite of identification with the cast of Jayne Joso’s latest excursion into the hinterland of a country about which most of us, in any case, know very little beyond cliché and stereotype. To take the telling epigraph to this fine collection of short stories an interpretation further, is, as Wassily Kandinsky suggests of his own art, to approach Joso’s work without preconception and with scant regard for the kinds of literary convention that define the mainstream, whatever that comprises.

With exquisite and transformative simplicity, Joso assembles a polychromatic collage whose collective power adds up to very much more than its individual parts. That none of the individual stories are specifically inter-related does not undermine the sense of a bigger picture at play. Indeed, the pieces form a kind of doll’s house with no frontage where lit vestibules, conversations, and unfolding events are opened to the public gaze, unconnected but juxtaposed, like noises off in adjoining rooms.

And if Joso is not making myth of personal connection – she has lived in and written about Japan at length – her stylistic tics hold up a mirror to the kinds of Japanese domestic experience that find resolution in moral harmony, natural justice, and sometimes in schadenfreude. That her stories are mostly ‘complete’ lends them a fabular quality, as though explorations of local culture were subject to a preordained plan or denouement. Like the novelist David Peace – another long-term Japanese resident – Joso is ‘infected’ with a sense of inherited history and of behaviour disported according to the tenets of an astonishingly deeply-rooted cultural structure.

Joso is familiar with irony: the superb accompanying MANGA illustrations by Namiko, which infantilise and idealise the human form, are serially undermined by the inconsistencies and inadequacies of the apparently ordered human beings upon whom they are based. For the notion of ‘what lurks beneath’, the equipage of topshow everywhere rubs up against a mannered society’s strictures.

Not least the underlife of ‘Mr Takahashi’, the repugnant businessman whose first-person trumpeting of his own ‘successful’ existence becomes his unwitting mea culpa. His imperviousness to his own failings – he controls and philanders beneath an exterior of assumed domestic harmony – renders him blind, also, to the irony of his wife’s gathering strength. The unravelment of Mr Takahashi as she clears him out and buggers off is succinctly and reassuringly anticipated: ‘Now I take my life back. Goodbye.

Jayne Joso
Jayne Joso
Jayne Joso’s stylistic peculiarities are purely tonal: Mr Takahashi’s institutionalised delusion, and ‘Kenji’’s accumulative obsession (the latter sings triumphantly of his pointless acquisitions into a concrete vacuum) might serviceably be revisited in any culture, and it is to her credit that she infers a cross-cultural metonymy of predilection. For the character of Hiromichi, a subscriber to Kandinsky’s negation of ‘the demands of his particular age’, the taking into his home of a vagrant is an unseemly risk in a proscriptive society. And initially, the seemingly rapacious interloper confirms the prejudice…until his sudden departure, which yields a characteristically simple, and affecting, corrective to the reader’s expectation:

‘There was a smell, a scent. Lemons. He had left a note. He was deeply grateful for the care and love I had shown a stranger. And lacking any other means of thanking me, had cleaned my place using fresh lemons’.

Such homiletic conclusions are both persuasive and satisfying. The symbolism of the lemon and the persimmon recur frequently in Japan Stories, as though natural fragrance was the handmaiden of hope and resolution. Elsewhere, the tendering of a plate of wholesome food is restorative in the psychodrama of ‘I’m not David Bowie’, whose protagonist’s obsessive and, again, delusional identification with the androgynous singer is reinforced in the wake of the loss of his girlfriend, then ridiculed by her cruel, insightless replacement. The ministrations of an old lady, and a procession of sympathetic neighbours, restore moral balance to a story which offers salvation, instead, in Bowie’s own promulgation of the glittering transient: ‘And we, we can be heroes! Just for one day…

If an empty museum, presided over by a sociopathic owner/curator, is a short, sharp echo of discontent in a claustrophobic box of his own device (‘Ryo’), elsewhere the surreal fabric of many of Jayne Joso’s landscapes is an extreme manifestation of acculturated suggestion. But the reader’s immersion in this strange, little known and less understood, society does not obscure the clear-sighted, sometimes tragic, moments which jolt the senses into a more general recognition of what it means to be human.

The depressive, near psychotic failure of the central figure in ‘Kaori’ to find contentment in a series of interchangeable houses is endogenous in origin, yet we remain counter-intuitively surprised by the calculated, and beautifully-realised, ending where fragrance is swallowed by the all-consuming sea. Death of a quite other order is a desired consummation in ‘Mr Seki’, whose closing sequence lingers long in the memory. Stripped to the bone by the depredations of dementia, Joso’s prose falls from eloquence to hand-wringing and the bitterness of uncontained grief, to create another kind of desperate lucidity. That most of us will recognise the son’s plight is a fitting tribute to Joso’s profoundly moving recreation of pain and consolation:

Please, just die now and give me back my life. Shunsuke sobbed into his hands. The old man was bewildered. He placed his hand gently on his son’s head, a head he did not recognise and he stroked it in the manner of those who meet with a cat that has strayed inside.

Oh, dear me, don’t cry, don’t cry, the old man said, and he patted the man so kindly, and so gently, your family will be missing you, we must get you home to them, home to bed, young man, and soon.’

Japan Stories, with illustrations by Namiko, is published by Seren.

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