Book review: Amrita

AmritaAmrita by Banana Yoshimoto
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Amrita is much longer than other Yoshimoto books I’ve read. It’s also the most scattered and least considered of her works. Magical realism and urban observation combine in the story about a memory-loss victim and her family – most notably a dead, beautiful sister and an uncanny-child little brother – which features some nice locales but nothing which stays with the reader afterwards.

The characters created are fairly detailed and clearly defined. But I found it difficult to muster interest in their fates, apart from the younger brother. Indeed, locations seem to be more of interest: the transformative nature of a change of location has more oomph than anything the cast goes through.

Elements of the work venture into supernatural territory. Murakami’s exploration of same is brought to mind, but without the odd eroticism that author sometimes ties to the experience. Mesmerism, thought transference and straight-out ghosts are present. But there’s no revelation. Nothing is ever really explained, no matter how many cod-philosophical ramblings the main character espouses.

I suppose the book is meant to be evocative of the cyclical nature of life. Certainly, Yoshimoto mentions the fact in her afterword. But unlike versions of the myths of, say, Sisyphus or Prometheus, there’s no structure to the cycle. We’re told there’s cycles, and it seems the (re)discovery and reliving of memory is the most defined of these processes – but there’s nothing more. There’s a little character growth, but it doesn’t really change anything. It’s a bit disappointing for a book which takes its title from the Rigveda. It’s fine to have a word for immortality (or, as the book would have it, ambrosia) as your title – but surely something inside the covers needs to step up to the concept?

I enjoyed Amrita but its flaws ensure I won’t read it again. Like the other Yoshimoto novels I’ve read, it created a world – but it was too fractured to make a lasting impression, other than of brokenness. I admit that may be the point of it – the book is about identity and the way its construction can be broken in an instant – but the fact the author herself apologises for the book in an afterword hints that it’s not only me who finds the text messy. It needs an edit and a point. Without these, it’s just an inflated, over-long thumbnail sketch.

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