ALTHOUGH PLENTY OUGHT to, few authors apologize for their work. But Banana Yoshimoto, a writer who need have no regrets, ends her third book, Amrita, with this thought: "Now as I read over this novel I realize how naive it is, and I feel my face turning red."
A guileless enough remark, but at second thought, Yoshimoto must have smiled at her words, because it is that very sparkle of naïveté which typifies her writing. Her first book, Kitchen, described love and loss through a colorful clutter of slang, fast food, and household appliances. Yoshimoto's innocent characters illustrated how the stupid material stuff of life takes on emotional worth, and how solace and understanding come accidentally, less from any introspection than from floundering routine.
But where Kitchen found spirituality in a rice bowl, Amrita captures spirituality sans table settings. Yoshimoto's latest heroine, Sakumi, stumbles into a strange odyssey when she falls down a stairwell and lands in a coma. She wakes to find that her little brother, Yoshi, has become a conduit to the apparitional world. And though this setup would seem to give a writer carte blanche to all brands of weirdness, Yoshimoto's characters are too real to live in a fantasy world. Sakumi and Yoshi marvel at their new existence, peopled with ghosts and psychics, but they filter the unreal through things so ordinary that somehow, through Yoshimoto's bright, uncomplicated prose, the siblings--and the reader too--can guardedly believe. When Sakumi sees an apparition in a TV security monitor, the paranormal is made normal through the banality of technology. It's an odd logic, suggesting perhaps that if aliens came to earth wearing Gap khakis, we all wouldn't wig out.
Lingering amidst all this supernatural phenomena, however, is a persistent sadness. Sakumi's sister and father are dead, and her kid brother nearly cracks in his role as a prepubescent headcase. But Sakumi looks outward with wonder and curiosity, keeping gloom at bay with her diary-like observations on vacations, cool friends, and funky restaurants. She even manages to keep Yoshi in his place; he may have conversations with the dead, but he's still her pain-in-the-ass little brother.
Coming of age in a newly screwed-up world fails to faze Sakumi; she unfailingly accepts whatever is put before her. In creating such a character, Yoshimoto opens up a new mode of escapism: When the bizarre becomes the everyday, even routine living can seem dazzling. And look; it works.