The Student
Review
Lockdown Literature Challenge: collapsed time and everyday cycles in Banana Yoshimoto’s ‘Amrita’

That resplendent space created by a piece of fiction can really expand the width of time… Clearly there is a spot somewhere inside our heads that records the feelings we had when we read the book, and it stays with us forever.

I thought, like so many, that this sudden abundance of time meant I would be devouring books left, right and centre. Rather, I have made pithy attempts at chipping away at academia, starting War and Peace for the third time and reading one book in full; Miranda July’s The First Bad Man. I found myself at a loss in the struggle to find something which would hold my rapidly declining attention span and that would, in some way, reflect what is happening in my life right now. I’ve always felt books have a strange way of doing that. Inevitably though, when you try too hard to force something to reflect your circumstances, they rarely do.

A few days ago, something drove me to pick up a book I started last year, Banana Yoshimoto’s Amrita. The novel’s plot is simple: it follows a young woman, Sakumi, as she experiences the aftermath of her younger sister, Mayu’s, death. However, the unexplained circumstances of Mayu’s demise allow grief to manifest in bizarre ways, leaving behind an extended family including a younger brother with supernatural abilities, and a fiancé who is writing a novel which parallels Sakumi’s own life. Amrita takes place over many years and explores grief in the many forms it can take, as well as the people it leaves behind. It forefronts the everyday setting in a world where the supernatural is possible. Everything is given attention; from the impact of a singular sunset, to a UFO sighting and the way light comes in through a window, and even to how a baguette is made.

After reading her acclaimed debut novella, Kitchen, last year, I felt the need to delve further into Yoshimoto’s world. I therefore purchased Amrita, yet, when I began to read it, I found it impossible to lose myself in it the way I had with Kitchen. In Kitchen, Yoshimoto’s stream-of-consciousness style had been absorbing and surreal, whereas Amrita felt fragmented and impenetrable – surely life really wasn’t this slow-paced? Yoshimoto herself saw this work as “random and disjointed,” “naïve” even, (stated in the ‘Afterword’ to Amrita) and I agreed with her. I began reading Amrita at a time when a lot was happening in my own head, life was constantly shifting and moving forward at a pace I almost couldn’t keep up with. Last year, I thought this book to be too languid, taking too long focusing on minuscule details.

Of course, everything is different now. Life has dramatically slowed down and, for those of us privileged enough to be able to stay at home, the setting of ‘the home’ and concepts of family have taken on entirely new meaning.

So, whether it be the moon, mercury in retrograde, or just down to plain coincidence, I picked up Amrita again. Starting from the beginning, I was immediately and unexplainably absorbed by Yoshimoto’s words. My criticism of the novel still remains in that it is fragmented and undoubtedly feels like a lengthy read, often hitting lulls and chapters where really nothing is happening. For me, her strength as a writer presents itself in the way she injects beauty into everyday phenomena. Take, for example, the description of a sunset Sakumi experiences whilst taking a trip with her boyfriend in Saipan:

how could a simple thing like a sunset contain so much power? I didn’t know until I saw it first-hand. Over the course of our lives each one of us reads a million books and sees as many films – we kiss our loved ones the same number of times. But I was aware I’d seen something that night that I’d never see again in my lifetime… Nature is something so powerful that when you try to capture it, it overwhelms you with a split second of something spectacular, forcing you to understand, even when you’re not looking for it. Since the mysteries aren’t biased, they can happen to us all.

The sunset becomes a metamorphic experience for Sakumi, and nature, in general, forms a large part of the novel’s tapestry. There is so much in Yoshimoto’s description which I felt representative of my own recent experiences in nature; the transformative quality it can have, and the importance of allowing ourselves to be transformed by it.

Amrita is also unique in how it deals with relationships between people, by endorsing the unexplainable connections we have with those we barely know. It permits the cerebral to exist alongside the physical, and favours a decentring of more traditional, heteronormative relationships. The strange and unconventional is championed, and later develops into the explicitly supernatural – an interesting tonal shift, but one I appreciated.

Reading Amrita feels like falling asleep in front of a long film; one of my favourite feelings, being in-between a dreamscape and a fictional world, a place where reality has no entry point. Often, I fell out of touch with the plot of Amrita and, instead, immersed myself in the linguistic construction of the text (I feel this is where the excitement of the novel exists). Yoshimoto places enough trust in the reader to allow us to weave in and out of the plot, the characters, and the language used to construct them, providing us with an alternative understanding of something which is relatively simple. Yoshimoto herself described the theme of Amrita as “simple”: she wanted to merely “express the idea that, regardless of all the amazing events which happen to each of us, there will always be the never-ending cycle of daily life.”

As I finish the final page (of the second book I’ve read over lockdown), I am met by a distinct calmness. Amrita has taught me the importance of everyday cycles, routines, and living what we might refer to as a ‘small life’, despite the curious things which often happen to us. Taking stock of experiences as they come and go, rather than trying to force everything onto a rigid timeline, is spearheaded by this book. Whilst reading it, I felt time collapse around me, and a sense of ease swept over me as I closed the cover of Amrita. This period of our lives doesn’t involve non-stop reading, productivity and constant filling of time, but a slow appreciation of detail and learning to listen to ourselves.

Image: Luca Tommassini, on instagram @lucatommassinireal