Review, Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe


Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe brings the novelist career of his literary alter-ego, Kogito Choko, to a close with the publication of his new novel, the most recent in the series, Death by Water. This installment explores the intensity of interconnectedness between parents and their children, particularly, but not exclusively, between fathers and sons.

Its themes of regret and loss saturate the book with a heavy sense of sadness it’s difficult to shake, flirting with the point of wallowing. Oe doesn’t shy away from the bald illustration the sins of the fathers are often visited upon the sons, the mistakes of one generation teaching subsequent generations little about averting the same disastrous behavior.

Choko is a writer haunted for a lifetime by the sudden and violent death of his father, when Choko was a child, a death obscured by secrecy and silence. As a result of his loss, grief and guilt infuse all his relationships, threaten to destroy his mental state, and stunt his career. The specter of his father’s last moments torture him, to the extent happiness in any other aspect of his life is severely compromised.  Oe has created a man damned by his own regret, a character nearly impossible to sympathize with due to his single-minded intention to see all his life through a prism of self-imposed, exaggerated mourning.

The adults in the protagonist’s life made matters far worse for Choko by remaining closed-mouthed, shrouding the already traumatic event in forbidden mystery, leaving him to think the worst. Reeling, all he knows for certain is documents locked inside a red leather trunk, an object he will spend the greater part of his life coveting, can explain all. Little else is said, next to no effort made to comfort the child, to help him move beyond his sadness. Small wonder he found himself stymied.

A later rift with his mother denies Choko hope of exploring the secrets contained in the trunk, his one link to revealing the past. Having published a novel speculating on one possibility explaining his father’s death, his mother becomes so irate at what she sees as a weak and pathetic characterization of her husband she cuts off her only son, disowning him.

It’s only later, when Choko’s son is born with a defect in his skull—mirroring a situation in Oe’s own life, leading him to create Choko’s story—that she relents. Even then, by the time he’s allowed possession, ten years later, he finds his mother has decimated the contents, burning the most damning documents.

What she did leave, however, was an audiocassette containing an explanation of the truth. Ironically, this truth leaves Choko with little useful information for use as the framework of his final novel. It had been his dream to end his career by writing his father’s story, through the lens of T. S. Eliot’s poem “Death by Water,” from which poem Oe takes the title of this book. In one final punch to the stomach, Choko sees his dream slip away. For better or worse, his mother has won.

Fortunately for the novelist, a company of actors known as the Caveman Group has dedicated itself to the revival of his by now languishing canon. Through the determination of a young actress and budding director, Unaiko, as well as the theatre’s manager, Masao, his deflated dream will be revived, the story’s focus changed from his father’s death to the imaginary friend he created as a child, named Kogii, a name his family had chosen as a fond diminutive of his own. This creature of his imagination, always a larger than life figure to him, takes center stage in the dramatization of his works.

For the first time in his 70 years of life, focus is shifted from his loss to a much more positive childhood experience. In an unexpected reversal, the curse of disappointment suffered from the empty trunk becomes a blessing.

For all Choko’s newfound renewal, he fails to notice how his great hypocrisy toward his own son is perhaps an even more grievous and abhorrent transgression than any perpetrated on him. His justification for his behavior, that his son is a great disappointment, reflects frustration in the face of his failed quest. Despite the lift he feels from his exciting new project, he remains unable to change the landscape of his life, neglecting to turn lessons learned from traumatic childhood experiences into the chance for happiness with his own family.

Once again Choko has suffered a loss, this time one he can’t seem to recognize, in the way of estrangement from his son. Nearing the end of his life, he has become a very selfish, hardened man toward all but the members of the theater company who stroke his ego. But, in yet another twist, life swiftly delivers a strong reprisal, a consequence so severe it can’t help but change him. At last, things have come full circle.

Death by Water is ostensibly the prolonged keening of a son for his lost father, running parallel with the story of a mother’s grief for the son whose fixation with her husband’s death threatens to destroy his relationship with his own son. While it does have the redeeming grace of interesting sub-plots, the whole of it is fixated on often-repetitive expressions of misery. This, as well as the often simplistic, occasionally pedestrian prose is a large flaw. Whether the prose failings are a result of translation is difficult to say. In any event, the novel could have stood deeper editing.

Not having read the previous novels in the series may be a hindrance; I can only speculate on that. Still, knowing more of the backstory of Kogito Choko would do nothing to rectify the shortfalls in the prose.

Overall, the story is a moving one. Regret and loss are powerful forces in a life, the loss of large parts of childhood a travesty. Oe does a masterful job expressing these themes through his characters. Unfortunately, the novel is alternately so stylistically over-wrought and stilted as to jerk the reader out of the tale, inhibiting its flow and power.

Pruned to a leaner work, Death by Water may have been a thoroughly impressive book. As it is, the story is weakened, its truths strained. If this is the last we see of main character Kogito Choko, it seems a sad farewell.

After seven novels, the reader can’t help believing this semi-autobiographical character deserved so much more.

432 pages
Grove Press (October 6, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0802124011
ISBN-13: 978-0802124012

Publicist: John Mark Boling:

reading a nobel laureate and other slutty adventures


It’s time to sweep away books from the summer and queue up titles for winter review. That’s my grubby lace arm you see, sliding down the table, knocking off old wedding cake and all the spring and summer ARCs. Estella, get the door! It’s the postman again.

What I didn’t get around to reading I’m abandoning, like a tiresome orphan at a train station, a pin with the plea “please take care of this book, thank you” clipped to its little wool jacket. We had a lovely time, only my apartment space is very limited and every corner filled. You see how it is.

Don’t look at me with those sad eyes…

The fall and winter publication lists have been eyeing me seductively, saucy things. They’re shiny and new and exotic with all their tantalizing promise.  Arrivals are coming fast and furious now, thick brown envelopes tracking me everywhere, plopping upon my doormat, the front door of the apartment building I’m in, even the marital house I’ve left. You unread or unpromising lot from earlier in the year are a bit worse for wear, your covers scuffed from being shuffled between rooms, all the novelty worn off. I’ve had you; now I want them.

The bloom is off your rose.

New and different things have a delicious appeal, when you’re a reviewer. It’s what ensures the perpetuation of the species. What’s being talked about this week or month or season has a buzz my kind knows how to generate well enough we can’t resist each other’s hyperbole. It’s what keeps me poring through the lists of up and coming releases, grabbing what looks promising, adding to the piles slated for the long, cold winter.

Despite feeling a little hesitant to take it on, I chose Kenzaburo Oe’s newest novel, Death by Water, for this round of reviews via New York Journal of Books. I heard the announcement it had come in – I was right there and it would have been a little silly if I hadn’t – and that no one else had claimed it. Snatch it up, a voice crooned in my ear…

SNATCH IT UP and run!


Spoiler alert: I snatched.

I’ve never read anything by Oe, a relatively recent Nobel Laureate, so it’s a little unnerving my first foray with him will necessitate pronouncing on his work in a loud and public review forum. If I don’t like the book, I’ll be the reviewer who was too good for a writer who’s won the big prize. If I do, I’ll be one of the adoring. Whichever way it falls, the pressure’s turned up a bit. Not that it’s ever stopped me; I’m unafraid of challenging icons (SEE: Tyler, Anne). Still, I admit I feel it.

Hold me; this is a tender moment. I’m feeling a little fragile.

Mood’s over. Go sit across the room. I’m busy.


In other reading, I’ve begun Stacy Schiff’s marvelous nonfiction work The Witches: Salem, 1692. Always been fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials, as iconic an American story as any, plus all my family ancestral lines were already in this country well before this nastiness occurred, making the possibility they knew of it – during or not long after – very real.

The story’s enticing enough for all its swirling darkness and edge of menace, made more enigmatic by a surprising dearth of existing evidence, the fact of which coming as a complete shock to me. Having done a fair amount of genealogy over the past year and a half, I’ve learned what meticulous record-keepers the early colonists were. Finding a gap of over a year in personal and official papers is shocking. This was intentional. And I’m hooked.

While Oe’s occupying the bulk of my reading time, I’ve also been trailing a finger in other advance copies. On a whim, I grabbed a new YA title by Edwidge Danticat, called Untwine. Don’t know why I picked it, to be honest. Change of pace? It’s about twin sisters of Haitian Creole ancestry, which is of course Danticat’s own heritage. When the family gets into a terrible accident, not everyone survives. It’s about the bonds of twins and having read the first third, I’ve known for dozens of pages the complexity’s not going to engage my attention all that well. Pitted against the other, far more compelling stuff I’m into, no surprise. Not a promising first taste of this author.

Far more to my taste is Andrew Motion’s latest, The New World. His second sequel to RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island, this one finds hero Jim Hawkins stranded on the Gulf Coast of Texas, returned for the silver left buried there lo these many years.


More titles in flux, on the way or dropped behind furniture, temporarily lost. I do my level best, I do, but it’s a madhouse. As a change of pace,  I was just offered a CD for review, by a Grammy-winning artist. I’ve turned down other music review requests. This one just got lucky being in the right place, catching me in the right mood. Plus, it’s a sort of easy listening genre, which will pair well with my new Lush bath stuff and a bathroom full of candles.

Hey, I can be bought.

But enough blather. I’m in the middle of that Oe review, first draft, and want to get that one pushed out of here before the book waiting on deck, written by a friend of a friend (another avenue into my good graces), steps up to the plate.

Busy, busy, never ending. Circle of life. Shoulder to the grindstone and don’t spare the horses!

out of the darkness walk: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Suicide has touched me and those I love. On September 26 I will be participating in the Out of the Darkness Walk for Suicide Prevention, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

If you feel you would like to or would be able to donate to the cause, here’s the link for my own personal fundraising page.

I don’t get the money but I do get a cool t-shirt if I hit $ 150. 🙂

Thanks for your support.


Writer/Cartoonist Allie Brosh

Writer/Cartoonist Allie Brosh

Baileys Prize longlist read: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey


  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (June 10, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062309668
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062309662
  • $ 25.99

I cannot imagine wanting to go on living should I one day be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Some may spout off about the “sanctity of life” but I see no sanctity in becoming a living shell, operating without the essence of what makes me who I am: without the vast culmination of the memories I’ve both earned and had thrust upon me, and the lucidity to carry out the functions of daily life. Worse, forgetting who my loved ones are and losing all the memories I’ve had with them. Most crushing of all, becoming a tremendous burden to my family and, occasionally, a joke for the antics I’d be unable to control. I’d far rather be euthanized.

The topics raised in Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing are all the more timely after the recent passing of fantasy writer Terry Pratchett, who suffered the ravages of the disease for some six or seven years before succumbing earlier this week. However I believe I would react, Pratchett went at it fiercely, fighting back and going public, letting the world know he wasn’t dead yet and, indeed, intended to stave off the inevitable as long as it was in his power to do so.

He allowed himself to be filmed for the first year after his diagnosis, very candidly showing the world how the path of his particular experiences of the disease progressed. If you have a chance, I recommended watching it. That, and any other material he produced while in the throes of Alzheimer’s. Reading about it theoretically is one thing, watching it unfold in real time quite another. It will add another dimension to understanding how horrific this damned disease actually is, worse than anything I’d realized and I’m a glass half-empty sort of person. I probably didn’t need to add that last statement; I expect you’ll find it more than a little redundant.

Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is the story of an elderly woman named Maud who, in moments of lucidity realizing she hasn’t seen her best friend Elizabeth in quite some time, begins to suspect something awful has happened to her. Maud is quite far gone but cognizant enough to realize if she writes things down on slips of paper, carrying them with her, she can sometimes make sense of big, important things. And finding her friend Elizabeth is at the top of that list, though the repetition of it drives all around her stark, raving mad. Still, no matter how far gone her dementia, her love of her friend keeps poking through the mist. She has something to keep her going, a quest she feels she must fulfill, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Her determination is one of the last things she has left of the woman she once was.

Maud visits Elizabeth’s house, noting her son has been emptying it. When she calls to ask what’s going on he swears at her, telling her no concrete details save Elizabeth is fine and to stop bothering him. In bits and pieces, the reader later learns Maud had called him at 3 a.m. Hardly the time to expect a rational, or apparently kind, answer.

Needless to say, our narrator is far from reliable and untangling the real from the imagined is part of the fascination I, personally, felt for the story. How events seemed to Maud could be awfully convincing. You want to believe her, because she’s so determined and deserves to have things put right. Then, life has a tendency to veer off course, even without a brain-degenerating disease thrown into the mix. Is she being protected from a terrible truth, has something nefarious happened she alone is capable of unearthing or is she simply an elderly woman caught in her life’s final spiral, confused and entirely off track?

Healey tells the story both via Maud’s thoughts and memories, rational and not, and through the words and actions of those around her, mostly her daughter, Helen. Not being an expert on Alzheimer’s by any means, I believe it’s beautifully done. Writing coherently in the voice of a woman who’s fading away rapidly takes a great deal of skill. Keeping the reader flipping pages madly, not once distracted by a false note on the writer’s part, takes even more.

As if this weren’t enough of a challenge, there’s a parallel, flashback plot line as well. When she was an adolescent, Maud’s older sister Susan (Sukey) disappeared, under mysterious circumstances, as a young wife married to a man who ran a black market enterprise during WW II – a man known for getting drunk and rowdy, as well. Maud made herself sick obsessing over the case. Finding nothing after all her ceaseless searching, after the police detectives had thrown up their hands, she wound up so ill she was restricted to bed for weeks, to gain back her strength.

So there’s not just the Elizabeth mystery going on but the re-living of the past and Maud’s sister’s loss. The previous loss explains why Maud cannot let Elizabeth go. She may have failed Susan but she’s determined not to fail Elizabeth.

I expect this is the reason Elizabeth is Missing was nominated for the Baileys Award for Women’s Fiction, the complexity of running two similar stories, some 70 years apart, so seamlessly, while carrying the weight of an elderly woman with dementia. And though it’s heartbreaking reading, it’s not without its moments of dark humor. Another great skill, knowing where to insert these little bits, so the reader has a small break from the tension of reading such a dark novel.

Keep an eye on Emma Healey. The Baileys judges handpicked her to stand in as one of the more remarkable young writers writing today. There’s always at least one writer with Healey’s promise on the Longlist and, though I don’t expect her to make it through to the Shortlist, I highly recommend this as a fine novel and Emma Healey as a writer with much potential.

She pulled off a lot in her first novel. If she can take her next book in a different direction, while keeping her skill set, she may just wind up back on this list again one day. Quite a bit of pressure on her for her sophomore effort – the downside of being Longlisted – but hopefully she won’t make us wait too long for it. If I could recommend one thing to her, it would be get right back in there. Close your ears and mind to the Baileys, and produce the draft of your next novel. No small feat but you’ve come this far.

Wow us again, Emma. You can do this.

Richard Flanagan wins Man Booker; Lisa neither surprised nor unsurprised

Never in recent memory have I had less interest in the Man Booker Prize contenders. In years past I’ve knocked myself out trying to read all the short-list titles, not letting the fact I never managed to read them all stop me from forming an opinion as to who should win this coveted award. (At this point I generally crow about my accuracy rate. I’ll spare you that, and you are welcome.) But this year? I could not have cared less. I bow my head in shame.

I still respect the award and will surely find the strength to care again next time around, but life chose to bestow a highly emotional experience on me which kept me from reading anything –  until recently – much less the Booker contenders. Now that life’s settled a bit, knock on wood, my reading has resumed apace and I can have a look at Richard Flanagan’s work.

If there’s one thing I hate it’s being out of the literary loop. Backtracking to read anything he’s written will be better than reading nothing at all. Until a couple of months ago, I owned a signed 1st edition copy of Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish. Unfortunately, I sold it, along with a few hundred other titles, in the midst of the aforesaid upheaval in my life. I’ll try to buy it back, now that the man’s gone and won an award. Literature doesn’t have much of a following where I live, in the far NW Chicago suburbs, so my chances of recovering it are pretty good. In fact, great. His stock price has now risen; despite having to pay a bit more for the book I’ve previously purchased, my return on investment may still be worthwhile. At the least, I’ll know he’s safely nestled back on my shelves. I’ll feel better, and he’ll be back where he was, gathering dust on one of my dozen or so bookcases.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the book for which he won the award, is owned by a few libraries in our system, but not mine. Because it is so new, I can’t put it on hold, so can’t even request it until it’s seasoned a bit. As I’m determined not to purchase it, because I’ve restricted myself from buying so many books (I know…), I’ll content myself with the book we do have on shelf here at my library: Wanting.



Internationally acclaimed and profoundly moving, Richard Flanagan’s Wanting is a stunning tale of colonialism, ambition, and the lusts and longings that make us human. Now in paperback, it links two icons of Western civilization through a legendarily disastrous arctic exploration, and one of the most infamous episodes in human history: the colonization of Tasmania.
In 1841, Sir John Franklin and his wife, Lady Jane, move to the remote penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. There Lady Jane falls in love with a lively aboriginal girl, Mathinna, whom she adopts and makes the subject of a grand experiment in civilization—one that will determine whether science, Christianity, and reason can be imposed in the place of savagery, impulse, and desire.
A quarter of a century passes. Sir John Franklin disappears in the Arctic with his crew and two ships on an expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage. England is horrified by reports of cannibalism filtering back from search parties, no one more so than the most celebrated novelist of the day, Charles Dickens. As Franklin’s story becomes a means to plumb the frozen depths of his own life, Dickens finds a young actress thawing his heart.

When his Man Booker winner becomes available I’ll try to make time to get to it. In lieu of that, this should give me a good taste of his work. If he proves especially worthwhile there are many other Flanagan titles available via interlibrary loan, which is good luck for my credit card, though not so encouraging for Amazon.

In any case, good for him on his win.  Huzzah!, and all that.

mood music: name by the goo goo dolls

I love this song, both for the lovely acoustic guitar, sweet vocals and the lyrics, which I find very personally affecting. So much of what this song says reflects my life now, as well as my past:
And even though the moment passed me by
I still can’t turn away
Cuz all the dreams you never thought you’d lose
Got tossed along the way
And letters that you never meant to send
Got lost or thrown away

And scars are souvenirs you never lose
The past is never far


Bad grammar aside, it’s a beautiful song. Don’t we all have scars as souvenirs? A past that haunts?

And haven’t we all felt lonely, hurting and being hurt, regretful of all our wrong choices.