Masks is a book I’ve seen going around Instagram for some time, most accompanied by glowing reviews.
Never one to shy away from challenging Japanese fiction, I thought I’d give it a go and see what all the hype was about. Regrettably, this book just isn’t for me.
I struggled to get to grips with the characters, which meant that I couldn’t care less about the subsequent outcomes.
Although a short novel, Masks attempts to examine how people can be manipulated. The mystery… who is driving who?
All three main chapters in Masks take their name from poplar Noh masks (ancient Japanese masks worn on stage). The first represents a ghost, the second is a woman in a frenzy, both of which correspond to the emotions of the main character.
Following Yasuko, whose husband studied spirit possession in ancient literature, and has since died in an avalanche, she decides to carry on his studies. She does this whilst continuing to live with her mother-in-law Meiko.
Ibuki, a married professor, and Mikame, a psychologist also living in Tokyo, fall in love with Yasuko.
Although much of the novel is told from their perspectives, everything gravitates towards Yasuko; and the mysteries that surround her.
Fumiko Enchi is viewed as being a critical female author in modern Japanese writing. Unfortunately, though, only a few of her books and plays have survived.
Masks, published in 1958, mixes the Japanese arts of theatre and literature, to fuse a unique story of betrayal, revenge and seduction.
All the World’s a Stage
Enchi does an excellent job at describing environments and equally as well with subtle emotions. Still, I struggled to connect with the characters.
I couldn’t latch onto any of them, or find a reason to care about what was happening.
Whilst there’s a clear parallel between their lives and that of ancient Japanese literature, I didn’t find this enough to get more involved in the story. I guess it was one of those cases where the book felt too smart for its own good.
Despite the downfalls of the book, I did find it stimulating to read about the structures of Japanese marriage in a more traditional era. It’s interesting to see how affairs are handled differently to our attitudes in the west.
For example, as Ibuki grows closer to Yasuko, his wife’s suspicions and confrontation are unlike the reacts you’d expect. Mikame’s pondering of marriage, and calm acceptance to their growing apart is at times bewildering.
Masks offers plenty of mystery to hold intrigue, but the flat characters and lack of bite makes caring about it more difficult.
I was expecting something to Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, but unfortunately not.
For me, I cannot recommend this book and would rank it as a major disappointment compared to the hype surrounding it. I wouldn’t say no to reading more of Enchi’s work, but I’d need to be more careful regarding the context.