Just up the road from TOAST head office, situated in leafy Highbury, is a small, independent bookshop called [email protected] Many of us pass it on our daily commute and a few months ago we decided to go in. We met Betsy Tobin, the joint founder, and together we concocted the premise for the TOAST Book Club - a series of monthly reviews, written by the bookshop team and published on the last Friday of each month. Though the book club will exist in a digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.*
Our second book is The Makioka Sisters - a favourite of our founder, James Seaton.
Hailed by critics as the greatest Japanese novel of the twentieth century, Junichiro Tanizaki’s classic traces the fortunes of a declining Osaka family between the years 1936 and 1941. Often compared to Tolstoy, Austen or the The Tale Of Genji, the book tells the story of the four Makioka sisters: tradition dictates that the sisters must be married off in birth order, and when the novel opens the third daughter, Yukiko, has reached the almost unmarriageable age of thirty. Too proud, the family has turned down several suitors for her over the years, leading the youngest and boldest sister, Taeko, to carve her own path with a string of scandalous affairs.
The backbone of the narrative traces a series of failed prospects for Yukiko, each more frustrating than the last. Of paramount concern to the family is the adherence to tradition and propriety, with Yukiko’s security and happiness lagging second in importance. Nowhere does love figure in the equation, though that is not to say Yukiko’s wishes are ignored: time and again the family waits anxiously for her approval, which she offers only reluctantly and in the most excruciatingly vague terms.
Shy, introverted Yukiko has a ‘hard core’ that is ‘difficult to reconcile with her apparent docility’. Her beauty is described as ‘traditional’ and ‘fragile’ though she is the strongest of the sisters physically, and perhaps mentally too. She is the most obscurely rendered of Tanizaki’s characters: her true wishes are never fully apparent, and when her wedding kimono finally arrives she receives it glumly.
Her fortunes and character are in stark contrast to the sharply drawn Taeko, whose looks are repeatedly described as ‘modern’ and ‘lively’. At nineteen, Taeko elopes with her teenage sweetheart, the wealthy but dissolute Okubata, whose family quickly yokes him back. In the ensuing years Taeko sets up her own business as a dollmaker and moves out of the family home into her studio, where she is free to conduct her private life as she wishes, though her story is studded with tragedy.
This is a delicate infusion of a novel, steeped in detail and nuance, which unfolds with deliberate slowness – gradually drawing the reader in with its intricate depiction of Japanese family life. Though much happens, little of consequence occurs: illnesses, miscarriages, visits, celebrations, and family arguments all punctuate the narrative, with daily life rendered in almost forensic detail. But always the tension between tradition and modernity, decline and progress, East and West hovers like a spectre behind the story.
Nature and poetry feature prominently: Tanizaki’s descriptions of the seasons, be it cherry blossoms in spring, firefly hunting in summer, or the harvest moon in autumn, are hauntingly beautiful. And while the overall tone of the book is serious, the author peppers the narrative with wry observations and sly asides. World events are referred to only in passing: the Sino-Japanese War, Hitler’s rise in Germany and the outbreak of war in Europe are but murky clouds on the Makioka family’s horizon, but affairs closer to home figure more prominently, with the 1938 Kobe Flood rendered in spectacularly terrifying terms.
Originally serialized in a Japanese magazine in 1942, the book’s publication was quickly halted by wartime censors who condemned its portrayal of the ‘soft, effeminate, and grossly individualistic lives of women.’ But when it was eventually published in full after the war, its nostalgic depiction of traditional society in decline instantly found favour with a wounded Japanese public. This is a long, slow burn of a book: subtle, oddly compelling, occasionally infuriating, and ultimately captivating – an intimate portrait of a vanishing world etched in sharp detail.
Words by Betsy Tobin and image by VINTAGE at Penguin
Read more reviews from the TOAST Book Club or purchase the books from [email protected].
*All who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win a copy of the next book and a TOAST scented candle.