The Makioka Sisters

The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro. 
Serialized from 1943 to 1948
My rating: ★★★★★ 5/5 stars

My dear friend Jeanne recommended this, her favorite Japanese novel, and I picked it for the Back to the Classics 2016, non western writer category. I’m so very glad I did read this novel.

I’m taking this opportunity to review my ‘reviews’. I noticed that right after I finish a book, I think of it as the best book ever, and if I write the review of the book right away, I tend to rate it on my feelings. If I let some time pass, my reviews are less inflated, more accurate, better placed in value among my other reads.

Last book club meeting, we discussed The Nightingale. I listened to the well narrated audio for this longish book, and the narrator painted a moving and captivating story of the French resistance in WWII. It was intriguing, and the voice I know contributed to the book being very amenable. I wanted to listen to more, and know more. It made such a wonderful impression. I was recommending it to some friends. And then, our book club moderator, the friend who prints out questions for us, and leads our informal discussion, brought up some good points to the table. I agree with her in that one can enjoy a book and yet find some genuine criticisms to it. Without spoiling it for you, we all agreed that one of the main protagonists (one of the two sisters), is portrayed as a very unbelievable kind of super woman, which put some of us off. We agreed that people in The Nightingale did not sound or acted completely as French people of that time, the tone was a bit off. After some time has passed, I realize I can’t say this book has well crafted characters, or a powerful story. Informative, moving, easy going, action packed, yes, but also a bit shallow, not so well researched (there were funny blunders that our leader uncovered for us and that afforded us some laughter), and abounding in cliches.

And we come to The Makioka Sisters. If compared with The Nightingale (both are stories of sisters, and they have the war too, though in The Makioka Sisters it’s in the background), it’s like a bathtub rubber-ducky to a submarine (The Makioka Sisters is the robust submarine).

Taking some distance, The Makioka Sisters is in earnest the best read of 2016. I often read reviews on books I’ve read or want to read, and they are disconcerting, whether they praise the book or loathe it, I’m still left in the dark, and that’s because I don’t know the reviewer. The best recommendations are from friends whom I know better, and yet, at the end of the day, it’s you and the book, isn’t it? However, I’ll offer some coordinates that may help you decide if this novel is for you.

I read to nurture my moral imagination, to broaden my views, to understand more, to develop compassion, to travel in time and space, to grow as a reader. However, I need to enjoy what I read, and even when I’m pushing myself to some challenging reading, I’m always learning to love the challenge. If a book it’s too foreign, it can’t be my next step, maybe in some years, or maybe never, because I’m at an age where I want my reading choices to be meaningful and well chosen. For example, a light book read for book club becomes a meaningful choice, because book club is more than reading the books I’m interested in, but sharing titles other friends proposed, and it’s about the chat and the lovely night out with fellow readers.

My favorite type of literature is character driven (focused not necessarily in the action, but in the people and places). Somehow, my favorite book, Don Quijote de la Mancha, it’s packed with action, but that’s just for the first 500 pages (part I), and even so, through that first part, the characters take central stage. My favorite books are not just books, but universes the reader can inhabit. That’s true for Don Quijote, and for another favorite book, Fortunata and Jacinta, and for yet another, Cancer Ward. Worth noting is that these books are all very long books. Some time ago I ran away from long books like cats from water. Little did I know that for a writer to create a universe, pages are the needed flesh and bones. Many of those long books were also written in the span of years. The people in them grow and age within the pages. The Makioka Sisters is now in that bunch of favorite books. I also appreciate books that stand alone in an irreplaceable category, in a space of their own. Where do you find a book like A Canticle for Leibovitz, My Name is Asher Lev, or Catch 22?

Back to The Makioka Sisters, one reviewer said that she prefers “walking to running”. I do run, and I do walk, but applied to literature, to this book, you’ll understand perfectly what she meant. The book is about nothing -not really, it’s not about anything big-, the book is about domestic life, marriage, relationships, children, health, neighbors… Some big events external to the family life happen too. Curiously, my area in Houston, Texas, flooded when I got to the part in the book where their area flooded as well. Their flood was worse than ours (lives were lost in some places, totally obliterated), but for three to four days, my not notorious-anonymous life was shaken too. Around me, some friends are in homes that have become hostile environments, in need of major repairs. Some have the means, others not so much. And after all that, life came back to our old normal.

I forgot I was reading a novel. Like another reviewer said, I feel I know the people in the book better than I know some people in real life. These sisters, their husbands, children and neighbors, will live with me forever.

A taste of the book. Pg 216-217

Sachiko did not really like Tokyo, however. Radiant clouds might trail from His Imperial Majesty, but for Sachiko the beauty of Tokyo was the beauty of the Palace and its pine-covered grounds, and no more: the beauty of that island in the most modern part of the city, a medieval castle with mossy walls and banks along its moat, set off against the finest modern buildings. Of the Palace grounds, which had no rival in Osaka or Kyoto, Suchiko was sure she would never tire. But for the rest there was little in Tokyo that pleased her. Magnificent though the Ginza might be, there was something dry and harsh in the air that made her sure she would always be a stranger there. And she specially disliked the drab streets in the outlying districts. As the cab approached Shibuya, she felt somehow chilly even in the summer night. It was as though she had come to a distant, utterly foreign country. She did not know whether she had ever before been in this part of Tokyo. In any case, the streets seemed to her quite unlike those of Kyoto and Osaka and Kobe -they seemed rather like what one would expect in a frontier city farther to the north or even Manchuria. And this was no end-of-the-line alley; it was a busy street in the main part of Tokyo. The shops were imposing and there was considerable evidence of prosperity as they started up the hill beyond Shibuya. Why then was it so lacking in warmth? Why were the faces so cold and white? Sachiko thought of her own Ashiya, and of Kyoto. If this were Kyoto, she could feel at home in a street she was seeing for the first time. She would even want to stop for a chat with someone.

It was a wonderful read, an unforgettable experience.

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9 thoughts on “The Makioka Sisters

  1. Silvia says:

    I miss you too. I was going to send you a message.
    I'm just going through a phase, and FB fell through, I miss a bunch of you, but I am not ready to come back yet.

    Like

  2. Silvia says:

    Lisa, I know nothing about Japan either. To me, the key to finish this amazing novel was to never let a day pass without reading a few pages, more pages if I had the chance. The plot moves on in the book, not fast paced, but things happen, so, if you read a bit every day, you don't completely get out of the detailed lives of these sisters, and you stay interested and start fixing the characters' names and idiosyncrasies in your memory without effort.

    Once inside the book, it's a smooth read.

    Like

  3. theycallmemommy withapileofbooks says:

    Sounds so neat, Silvia! I might have to check this title out! I love your book chats. Btw, I came over to tell you that I just gobbled up City of Tranquil Light. You recommended it to me! I just loved it! A perfect read for me right now. Thank you, friend.

    Like

  4. Silvia says:

    Amy, how funny, I just came from your lovely blog, and I saw you read City of Tranquil Light. Such a kind and gentle read, yet so powerful in its message.

    Like

  5. Lory says:

    I love this – “My favorite books are not just books, but universes the reader can inhabit.” That is so true for me! I have this one on my Classics list and hope to get to it this year. Sounds like a truly immersive experience.

    Like

  6. Major says:

    Nice review. When I lived near Osaka, a woman who moved there from Tokyo when she got married told me that she always felt like a stranger in Osaka.

    Like

  7. Silvia says:

    Hi Major,
    Isn't it funny, how our allegiances to places work? I get that those two places have different idiosyncrasies. In Spain, for example, a person from Barcelona feels different to one brought up in Madrid, or Seville, or Pais Vasco, there's like mini countries within the country.

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