The Sound of Waves: A #Diversiverse Review

Sound of wavesA couple of months ago, James wrote about how much fun it can be to just take a book off the library shelf, without knowing anything about it. I had that post in mind on a recent library visit when I was pondering what I might read for Aarti’s #Diversiverse event. So I wandered through the stacks, looking for a non-white author whose work I knew nothing about, and my eye fell on the bold type on the spine of The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima and translated by Meredith Weatherby. It turns out that Mishima was a notable Japanese writer from the post-War period. But he and his work were entirely new to me. So how did this little experiment go? The results were mixed.

The Sounds of Waves is set on the small island of Uta-Jima, where the men make a living fishing and the women dive for pearls. An 18-year-old boy named Shinji is walking home from a day of fishing when he spots a girl he’d never seen before:

Her forehead was moist with sweat and her cheeks glowed. A cold west wind was blowing briskly, but the girl seemed to enjoy it, turning her work-flushed face into the wind and letting her hair stream out behind her. She was wearing a sleeveless, cotton-padded jacket, women’s work pants gathered at the ankles, and a pair of soiled work-gloves. The healthy color of her skin was no different from that of the other island girls, but there was something refreshing about the cast of her eyes, something serene about her eyebrows. The girl’s eyes were turned intently toward the sky over the sea to the west. There a crimson spot of sun was sinking between piles of blackening clouds.

The girl, it turns out, is Hatsue, daughter of Teru Miyata, the island’s most prosperous fisherman. She’d been sent away years ago, but Teru brought her back after the death of his only son, with the hope of bringing a good husband into the family to carry on his name. A girl like her seems beyond Shinji’s modest dreams, but dream of her he does. And soon, she begins to long for Shinji, too.

One thing Mishima does exceptionally well is describe the unsettling feelings that come with young, unexpected love. Their romance is both erotic and innocent, their feelings natural and forbidden. And they don’t quite know what to do with them. They’re curious about each other’s bodies, but they don’t want to bring disgrace on their families or themselves by going further than they believe is right. But the feelings are there, and they’re strong. At times, Shinji’s obsession with Hatsue’s breasts makes for uncomfortable reading that treads close to objectification, but it’s clear that he respects her as a person (although he doesn’t know her all that well yet). His feelings aren’t in his control, but his actions are, and he treats her with respect.

The trouble for the couple comes when others in the village notice their attraction and start talking about it. Hatsue’s father attempts to bring an end to the romance, but the couple continues to find ways to communicate. They can’t help themselves. But, like their feelings, their futures aren’t in their control. Others will have to be brought around if they’re ever going to be together.

One thing that interests me about this story is the value of what one character calls “get-up-and-go.” The characters’ environment conveys the message that the world is bigger than they are. Mishima writes extensively about the natural world that surrounds them and that controls their livelihood. And much of the action takes place in the shadow of a shrine to the god of the sea, whose good will the villagers depend on. Yet in the end, it’s industriousness that matters. Hard work will win the day. At least that’s what Shinji believes, right up until the end. The novel’s ending appears to endorse Shinji’s view of his own power, but the tension is there. I’m not sure Mishima would spend so much time on nature and the shrine if he meant to nullify their power in the end.

Still, I wonder if he’s trying to illustrate a time of transition from the old ways to the new. One of the concerns of the island people is that their children are moving away. Times are changing, and the book’s old-fashioned style sometimes feels elegiac. Maybe Shinji’s “get up and go” will be more important in this new world.

I noted at the beginning of the review that this book was a mixed bag, although I haven’t had much that’s negative to say. It’s a skillfully rendered story that hints at some deeper ideas. I could appreciate that about it. But even as I appreciated the skill in it, I wasn’t all that interested in it a lot of the time. The spare prose style, while readable, was sometimes dull and stilted. And because of that, I couldn’t fully engage with the story. It was a perfectly OK book, not one I’m sorry that I read, but I don’t know that I would have finished if it had been much longer.

DiversiverseI read this book for the A More Diverse Universe event, hosted by Aarti at Booklust from October 4-17. Read more posts and share your own contribution at her blog.


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11 Responses to The Sound of Waves: A #Diversiverse Review

  1. Deb says:

    Mishima might be one of those writers who are more interesting to read about than to read (Dawn Powell comes to mind). He was born into the Japanese aristocracy and grew progressively more right-wing (some might say fascist) throughout the 1950s & 60s. He married and fathered children, but had male lovers. He eventually committed ritual suicide in 1970 after failing in an attempted military coup.

    • Teresa says:

      He does sound like an interesting person, with some alarming ideas. The piece Bryan links to below has some good thoughts about the connection between his life and work and how knowing one can enrich one’s understanding of the other.

  2. Elle says:

    I have also found that (in my admittedly limited experience) Japanese in translation can be deeply weird for an English speaker to read. It very often comes off stilted, which is maybe because in the original Japanese, literary language is quite formal and precise (or maybe I’m completely making that up)–either way, I found Murakami quite hard going, and perhaps Mishima suffers from that too.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve noticed a similarly spare and formal style in some of the other Japanese novels I’ve read, but none felt as stilted as this did. I wonder if it’s because the story didn’t connect with me, or if maybe this translator didn’t smooth out the language as well as others have.

      • Elle says:

        Maybe the translator–it can’t be easy, but unfortunately when they do a less-than-stellar job it tends to stand out…

  3. Interesting that you would mention this author as I just came across this this morning too in my Twitter feed that someone mentoned:

    I don’t think I had ever heard of him before, before this.

    I hear about you “perfectly OK books” too. Sometimes they’re just okay, but doesn’t mean you’d seek them out otherwise or read them.

    I’ve done that with books at the library too, especially since I work as a library assistant at one. It can be good sometimes to mix up your reading.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks for that link! Maybe this is a case of seeing a name once and then noticing it everywhere after that. Maybe now I’ll be running across Mishima all the time and wondering how I’d missed him before.

  4. Jeane says:

    I read this book in highschool! I had completely forgotten about it until I read your review. I think it’s one of those I would never had appreciated if a teacher hadn’t guided us through it.

    • Teresa says:

      I can see the love story making it a good choice for high schoolers, and there’s probably a lot going on in it that I missed, especially when it comes to the cultural shifts that Mishima alludes to.

  5. aartichapati says:

    I had a very similar encounter with this book! Well, I was going to Japan and wanted to read a book by a Japanese author, and this one was available on e-book from the library. That was pretty much my only knowledge of it going in, and my thoughts about it were pretty mixed, too. Someone else read Mishima for #diversiverse and had a much more positive experience, so maybe he’s worth another try :-)

    • Teresa says:

      Sometimes the random choices are perfect, and sometimes they just aren’t. But I suppose it’s still fun to take a risk sometimes. I liked this enough that I’d read another book of his if it came with a strong recommendation from someone I trust. But I didn’t love it enough to be in a hurry.

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