Reviewed by Rebecca Hussey
Full disclosure: I’ve been reading Michelle Bailat-Jones’s blog for many years now, we have been “internet friends” for most of that time, and I wrote book reviews for her when she was the book reviews editor at the online literary journal Necessary Fiction. However, I’m as certain as it’s possible to be that I would have enjoyed her novel Fog Island Mountains even if the above weren’t true. The novel tells a compelling story in a style that is not only beautiful but uniquely suited to the subject matter.
The story takes place in a small Japanese town called Komachi, where a typhoon is now threatening. It tells of a family reeling from terrifying news while the typhoon rages around them. At the center of the story is Alec, the husband, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Alec is from South Africa but has lived for many years with his wife in Japan and has carved a place for himself in his adopted culture teaching English. He has found friendship and respect from the townspeople, although because of his whiteness and also his tallness, he will always stand out from the others. His wife is Kanae, and she responds to the threat of Alec’s bad news – before she has heard the news itself – by running away. Her flight brings us to the heart of the novel’s preoccupations: how can one deal with the news that a loved one will almost certainly die very soon? Although Kanae’s abandonment of her husband might seem cruel and heartless, we come to understand, as Alec does too, the reasons for her flight. Alec and Kanae’s three children must come to terms with Alec’s illness as well, facing the bad news in their own way, and we get glimpses into their lives and minds and the particular ways this loss will shape their futures.
But all this leaves out what is perhaps the most important aspect of the novel: the narrator. She is Azami, a mysterious figure who seems to know everything about everyone in the town. She is an elderly woman who entertains the town’s children with her stories and takes care of hurt animals that enter her yard or the forest around her. Of particular importance to her are the stories from Japanese folklore of kitsune, or foxes who can take on the shape of women. Azami regales the children with stories of the kitsune, but these stories also have a personal meaning, one that is slowly revealed as the novel progresses. Azami’s presence is closely felt throughout the novel as she moves back and forth between telling her own story and slipping into the minds and voices of the other characters to narrate their lives. We aren’t told how she knows in such intimate detail about Alec, Kanae, and the others, but we trust her as the town’s heart and spirit, its weaver of stories and its mythmaker. As she tells the story, Azami uses the words “we” and “our” to show the connectedness of the town and also to make the reader feel a part of events:
So this is our town, our little Komachi, this little cluster of businesses and houses settled into streets carved out of this volcanic soil, and crisscrossing each other, as we do, as our lives intersect from business to house to supermarket to hospital.
The movement between Azami’s story and those of the other characters is seamless. As a storyteller, Azami is matchless. There is an incantatory feel to the sentences, which are often made up of phrases piled on phrases, as though casting a spell over the reader. This passage gives a good sense of the book’s style:
It is evening now in our little town and the winds have settled, for now, for a few hours, while they regroup and gather off shore and over the ocean, preparing for their fury, but for now we are quiet, we can watch the sky and only wonder how it all will come about, and so now Alec is at his home, he has finished his afternoon classes at his little English juku, he has walked through town — past the butcher, past the new supermarket, past the garden shop, and past me where I was standing and waiting at the corner for the light to change; he even waved me a quiet hello.
From this paragraph, we can see how Azami positions herself in relation to the other characters, as a part of things, with close knowledge of what is happening, but still at a distance. The prose pulls the reader in with its rhythms, and one long sentence can capture a full scene. This piling on of phrases creates a breathless quality that matches the urgency of the story: not only must the characters come to terms with Alec’s very serious illness, but because of Kanae’s disappearance, action is required of them even with a typhoon threatening their homes and their safety. Azami’s quiet insight and wisdom is a counterbalance to the turmoil of the plot, and this combination gives the novel a sense both of immediacy and of timelessness.
All this is a lot to pull off in one short book – it’s a novel about illness, family, growing old, love, abandonment, storytelling, and the power of language – but Michelle does it beautifully. This is a novel to savor. It’s also the winner of the Christopher Doheny Award, sponsored by the Center for Fiction in New York City. The award is meant to honor excellence in writing about serious physical illness, and it’s clear to me why this novel won: it deals with the topic with gravity but also a lightness of touch that makes it a pleasure to read.
Rebecca Hussey is an English professor, blogger, reviewer, and, most of all, a reader. She blogs at Of Books & Bicycles.
Michelle Baillat-Jones, Fog Island Mountains (Tantor Media, Connecticut, 2014 ). 978-1630150020, 180 pages, paperback.
Michelle has written an article for us in our Bookbuzz section about writing this book – click here.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)