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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Spring Garden

by
Shibasaki Tomoka


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Spring Garden



Title: Spring Garden
Author: Shibasaki Tomoka
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 154 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Spring Garden - US
Spring Garden - UK
Spring Garden - Canada
Jardin de printemps - France
  • Japanese title: 春の庭
  • Translated by Polly Barton
  • Akutagawa Prize, 2014

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, low-key contemporary urban/society tale

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times A 10/6/2017 Iain Maloney


  From the Reviews:
  • "Spring Garden is a master class in novel writing, with no wasted scenes or images, each development and recapitulation moving the story along. Each evolution expands Taroís emptiness. (...) Tomoka Shibasaki rightly won the Akutagawa Prize in 2014 for this sublime novella of dislocation and regret, and Polly Bartonís light, understated translation does it immense justice." - Iain Maloney, The Japan Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Spring Garden centers on Taro. He is in his early thirties, and moved into a block of flats called View Palace Saeki III three years earlier, after he got divorced. The owners of the building have decided to tear it down, and so more and more of the residents have left as their leases expired or they were bought out; Taro still has a year left on his lease, so he's biding his time for now.
       The flats don't have apartment numbers, but rather are identified by signs of the Chinese zodiac, and Taro impersonally thinks of the residents according to their respective signs -- for example, he thinks of the woman who lives in the Snake flat as 'Mrs Snake'. Only four of the eight units remain occupied when the story starts, and Taro finally gets to know some of his neighbors better -- specifically Mrs Snake and the younger Dragon Woman, whose name he later learns is Nishi, and who is an illustrator and comic book artist
       The novel begins with Taro finding Nishi apparently spying on the house next door, in which Mrs Saeki -- the owner of the flats before she passed them on to her son -- had lived. It is an unusual building:

     The sky-blue house was certainly an eye-catching structure. It looked like the sort of grand, Western-style mansions that had sprung up in certain areas of Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
       Nishi's obsession with the house is also due to her familiarity with it from a book of photographs, Spring Garden, "documenting the everyday life of a married couple living in that particular house twenty years ago". As she puts it: "This book is that house".
       A new family, the Morios, recently moved into the house, and Nishi befriends the wife, gaining an entrée to see the inside of the house that she only knows from the photographs. Eventually, she convinces Taro to help her stage a scene that will allow her to get a glimpse of the one room she hasn't seen -- the bathroom. And when the Morios move soon later, both Nishi and Taro are invited to take any of the furnishings they want. (Taro claims several items, including the fancy refrigerator, a big upgrade from his old one.)
       Spring Garden is a novel full of voids and departures. Taro still misses his father, who died before he could enjoy retirement and old age, and Taro still has the mortar and pestle with which he ground up the old man's bones (creepily, he hasn't been able to bring himself to clean it, knowing remnants still cling to the inside of the bowl). The aging Mrs Saeki had moved to a care home a year earlier, and residents in Taro's building keep moving out; a work colleague of Taro's moves far away, and eventually Nishi and the Morio family decamp as well.
       Throughout, Shibasaki evokes a sense of melancholy nostalgia, and is particularly good at showing the steady shift and drift of past and present. Stability is an illusion, whether on the large-scale, structural level -- the changing neighborhood, the building being torn down and newly built -- to the more domestic -- the sky-blue house no longer the house captured in the book of photographs from just a few decades earlier -- to the personal, isolated souls only tenuously reaching out to one another
       Taro is adrift but seems relatively comfortably resigned to his fate: "Avoiding bother was Taro's governing principle" -- a: "personality trait that was one of the reasons his ex-wife had given for wanting a divorce".
       Late in the novel, there's an abrupt shift to the first person, as Taro's sister recounts coming to visit him -- seeing his flat, now over-stuffed with furniture from the Morios, for the first time --, a shift in perspective. Taro reminds his sister -- whom he long shared a room with in childhood --: "I can't live with other people". Recalling their childhood, they find:
     "It's amazing that we managed to live all that time in the same room."
     We didn't know what it was like to have our own space yet, that's why."
     It was at that moment that I realized that I would never again live with Taro. I felt pretty sure he was realizing the same thing.
       Spring Garden is a novel full of such understated (and generally at least slightly melancholy) recognition and awareness. There are few events of note; rather it is the everyday, and the brushes of contact with others -- rather than full-scale engagement -- that dominate. Typically, Taro's interactions with others are dominated by a literal give and take, as he receives small gifts and passes them on -- or larger ones, in the case of the Morios furniture (and even here his sister takes a green armchair off him).
       It makes for a low-key but evocative novel, slightly dreamy, rich in color and un(der)expressed emotion, gentle, calm, depicting a society of frayed family connections and isolated souls. Aspects are perhaps rendered too indistinctly -- it's difficult to imagine Taro married, and Shibasaki offers little insight into how his life might have been then, beyond that he worked for his father-in-law -- but as a slice of a transient present Spring Garden is -- much like the photo-book with the same title in the novel -- quite successful.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 July 2017

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Links:

Spring Garden: Reviews: Shibasaki Tomoka: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Shibasaki Tomoka (柴崎友香) was born in 1973.

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© 2017 the complete review

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