Book non-review: I give up reading 『光』by 三浦しをん

『光』by 三浦しをん, 集英社文庫

I still want to believe that I will pick up this book again and read the remaining 60 pages of 『光』. If you follow my blog, you know that I have loved 三浦しをん (みうらしをん)’s other novel 『舟を編む』, but I cannot say the same for this one. I struggled to read 『舟を編む』because the Japanese level was too high for me, but I struggled to read 『光』because I was never able to get into the story.

The reason why I am not enjoying this book is better explained using Nancy Pearl’s four doorways into a book. I first heard of these four doorways on Kazen’s blog Always Doing and it was a revelation. It helped me understand why I love or dislike a book.

While I cannot really judge for the language doorway, I think that this book is mainly focused on the story and the setting. But to me, the characters door was completely shut. I couldn’t relate to any of the characters, they didn’t feel real enough to me. To be more precise, I found that they didn’t react properly to the things that happen to them or to the persons they love (and awful things happen in this novel). Their reactions, their emotions always seemed wrong to me, or rather, nonexistent. It was as if they could not catch up with the story, as if the plot went on pursuing its themes of murder and haunting past and let the characters behind, unable to follow. To me, they lacked a credible emotional response to their environment.

So yes, I think that the “characters” doorway is always important to me. I would even say, more important than the “plot” one. As long as I can follow everything that goes on in the mind of the characters and get to see why they do what they do, why they react as they do, and even if I don’t approve them, even if I hate them, I won’t be able to put down the book. I think of three completely different examples of books I liked because the characters doorway stand wide open to me:

  • Perlmanns Schweigen by Pascal Mercier: This book is all introspection, we spend 630 pages in Perlmanns’ head, the story is reduced to a several days conference with fellows research scholars in linguistics. Nothing much happens, but I loved this book because I ended up feeling and thinking like the protagonist.
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan: This is an example showing that I don’t need to like, approve of or feel sympathy for a character to be fascinated by the book. While I have to control myself to not feel hate and disgust against Briony, the mechanism that brought her to do what she did and stick to it were so perfectly described that I read the whole long passage twice and ended up writing it in my commonplace book.
  • 『ちょっと今から仕事やめてくる』by 北川恵海 (きたがわ・えみ). Another different example. In this book, the protagonist is hardly described, we don’t have long introspective passages or description to explain his behaviour. But everything Takashi feels and think is exactly what I (and I suspect, a lot of people) would have felt and thought at his place. The identification process worked perfectly.

All of this to say that I don’t care about how it is done (introspection, description, identification) as long as I can feel close to the characters. In 『光』, however, I always felt far from them. I felt as if I was reading a French Nouveau Roman (really not my thing, but had to study it at university). I was always puzzled by the characters actions and reactions, and I felt nothing that could make me feel close to them. While the story was the most interesting, I could not fight the feeling: “I don’t care what happens to them.”

As a result, I let the book lie down several times, picked it up again, and laid it down again. I have reached page 297, the story is hotter than ever, but I still don’t feel into it, so I guess that I will admit that this book is not for me.

I find the four doorways very useful to analyse one’s relation to a book, and I am very grateful to have learned about them. I can now conclude by saying that, while the characters doorway was not open to me, the story and the setting, and I guess the language too, are wide open. If the plot matters more than the characters to you, by all means, read this book (it has rather good critics on the internet, which made me lose half my confidence and courage to write this non-review, haha). The story is gripping enough to have me continued this book for so long in spite of my lack of interest in the characters. To be more precise, I still want to know what will happen next. I just don’t care about the protagonists, so I don’t care if it turns out well for this character rather than that character or vice versa.

If you like stories of past crimes coming back to destroy the present, and if you are not as picky as I am on your relationship with fictional characters, you will certainly like 『光』!