Welcome to the latest edition of Books on GIF, the animated alternative to boring book reviews. This Sunday's selection is 'Masks’ by Fumiko Enchi.
Sorry I missed you guys last week; I was traveling again. This time, I was on vacation in Portugal. It was wonderful, and you all should go there. I visited a city called Obidos, which is completely devoted to literature and hosted a literary conference while I was there. You can see it on my Instagram page. I brought ‘Masks’ on my trip, and finished it somewhere between Lisbon and Porto. I first heard of the book back in June when Twitter pal Sally mentioned it. Later that month, I happened to be browsing the McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo and saw a copy. When I brought it to the register, the cashier dude took it, flipped it over and read the description on the back. Then, he pulled out his phone and took a picture of the cover before handing it back to me saying, ‘This sounds great.’ You know what, cashier dude:
‘Masks’ is a remarkable book. It’s written in a slow-burn style that begins innocuously with two old friends, Ibuki and Mikamé, meeting in a train station, and builds toward an intense climax that left me like:
Ibuki and Mikamé share two things. Both are interested in spirit possession in Japanese literature and folklore, and they are both in love with the same woman: Yasuko, the widow of a third colleague, Akio, who was killed in an avalanche. On the day they meet in the train station, Ibuki and Mikamé go on to link up with Yasuko and her mother-in-law, Meiko, to visit a master practitioner of Noh theater to look at some very old masks and costumes that have been taken out of storage to air them out. The only GIF example of Noh masks that I could find is this really creepy one:
Yasuko confides in Ibuki that she is in thrall to her mother-in-law, and that the older woman is manipulating her as well as her two suitors without them realizing it, almost like she’s a spirit possessing all three of them. Ibuki can’t see how that’s possible, but over the course of the book, he realizes that it’s true. Of course, he realizes it too late. I won’t reveal any more about the plot because it’s hard to describe it concisely and for fear of spoiling it further. The writing is beautiful and seems to grow more so with every page. To give you an example, I’m altering the excerpt portion of this review to include a new thing I’m calling the ‘Most intense passage.’ In future reviews, I’ll alternate between ‘How it begins’ and ‘Most intense passage,’ depending on whichever is best. Here goes:
Most intense passage:
‘You’re going to go through with it, Mother, aren’t you? You’re going to see that Harumé has that child. It’s inhuman of you to make a woman like her, with so many physical and mental handicaps, risk childbirth, but your plan stands a good chance of succeeding. And it has a strong fascination for me, too, I’ll admit; I’m as excited as you by the prospect of a baby with Akio’s blood in its veins. That instinctive feeling underlies all the strange things I’ve done. You and I are accomplices, aren’t we, in a dreadful crime—a crime only women could commit. Having a part to play in this scheme of yours, Mother, means more to me than the love of any man.’
Meiko listened with eyes focused on the untidy scattered petals as Yasuko murmured softly in her ear. Loose wisps of hair brushed against her cheek, stirred by Yasuko’s close, excited breathing. She meditated on the deep and turbid female strength within her that had all but taken possession of Yasuko, wondering silently what power on earth might deliver her from the heavy load of karma that weighed upon her. The road down which she must blindly grope her way, helplessly laden with that unending and inescapable burden, seemed to stretch before her with a foul and terrifying blackness.
A vision came to her of an ancient goddess lying stretched out in the underworld, prey of death. Her flesh was putrid and swarming with maggots, her decaying form covered with all manner of festering sores that smoldered and gave off black sparks. The luridness of the sight sent the goddess’s lover fleeing in horror, and the moment that he turned and ran, she arose and swept after him in fury, all the love that she had borne him transformed utterly into blinding hatred. A woman’s love is quick to turn into a passion for revenge—an obsession that becomes an endless river of blood, flowing on from generation to generation.
A faint tear wet Meiko’s eye, so slight a bit of moisture that it passed unseen by Yasuko. Yet all the anguish of which she never spoke was compressed into that single drop.
That’s wonderful, right? I really enjoyed this book. The plot is intense and unusual, and might shock some readers, but all will come away knowing that they’ve read something truly unique. You should read this book.
‘Masks’ by Fumiko Enchi was originally published in Japan by Kodansha, Ltd., in 1958. It was published by Vintage Books in 1983. 141 pages. $14.95 at McNally Jackson Books, which is relocating.
In case you missed it: Books on GIF #90 featured ‘No One Tells You This’ by Glynnis MacNicol.
What's next: In two weeks you'll get a review of ‘The Vorrh’ by B. Catling. Also in the queue are ‘No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again’ by Edgardo Vega Yunqué, ‘Tell Me How It Ends’ by Valeria Luiselli and ‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh, among others.
Shoot me an email if there’s a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want me to review.
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this review!
Until next time,MPV