Book review: Masks

Masks by Fumiko Enchi
My rating: five stars

But I suppose Nō masks have such symbolic properties that everyone sees in them the faces of his own dead.

It’s taken me a long time to get around to writing a review of this novel. Partially that’s due to the year that’s been – all pandemic-related head fog and a lack of drive to do anything – but it’s also due to the fact that the book has taken up space in my attention, the way a loose tooth constantly draws the attention of a tongue.

Fumiko Enchi, a daughter of privilege, survivor of cancer and connoisseur of both Poe and sadomasochism, imbued Masks with a feeling of weird horror that seems so at odds with the elegance of both her background and Shōwa-era Japan more broadly. There’s something about this book – a tale of three sections – that unsettles at a less than conscious level.

Broadly speaking you could say the work is about relationships: familial, friendly, and intimate. The bonds that keep relationships together and the desire to foster new ones (or to restore old) are worked with care. But there’s something more than just thumbnail sketching at work: there’s a sense of power, of guidance. Of magic, even. The idea, as in a play, that there’s some kind of motivating force, some mysterious current that can be wielded for well or ill is strongly suggested here.

The influence of historical Japanese literature is strong on Masks. There’s a lot of reference to older works here, specifically The Tale of Genji, which Enchi had earlier translated into modern Japanese. The section titles are named after types of Noh mask, and the sense of motion inherent in the work certainly seems more theatrical than literary. It’s set in an oddly timeless period – well, except for the mention of a Hillman – and the novel features the same sort of distinct disconnect from reality one feels when entering a theatre to watch a play. Occlusion definitely features.

Believe me, she is a woman of far greater complexity than you – or anyone – realize. The secrets inside her mind are like flowers in a garden at night-time, filling the darkness with perfume. 

It’s a strange little work. There’s a distinct formality to the writing, but behind the rigid structure one has the sense of a terrible plan being executed, regardless of how the story proceeds. I had the distinct feeling as I read that there was another story behind the story, which I was only partially apprehending.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised: this did open with characters recalling the events of a seance.

I’m aware I’m being either enigmatic or obtuse (your pick) about this work. I really don’t want to give anything away about the machinations within: the unfolding story is too easy to spoil, I feel. But I want to really convey one thing: this is a more slippery read than I’d encountered, and it occasionally gave me a feeling that I had lost my way and had no fucking idea where I was going.

(That’s good.)

What I’m saying is that you should probably give it a whirl yourself. Pick up a mask and see if it fits. See who you become.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph. If you’d like to buy me some books to review, there’s a wishlist over here.

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