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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Forest Brims Over

Ayase Maru

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To purchase The Forest Brims Over

Title: The Forest Brims Over
Author: Ayase Maru
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 194 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Forest Brims Over - US
The Forest Brims Over - UK
The Forest Brims Over - Canada
La foresta trabocca - Italia
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Japanese title: 森があふれる
  • Translated by Haydn Trowell

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting, effective examination of contemporary Japanese society

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 12/8/2023 Eric Margolis
World Lit. Today . 9-10/2023 Erik R. Lofgren

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) novel filled with social commentary and a dose of surrealist wonder. (...) Reading Nowatari's misogynist voice is cringe-inducing at times, but the truth is, if we take a step back and assess the people around us objectively, we're all bound to know someone like Nowatari. (...) The oppressive nature of Japanese capitalism and working culture lurks in the background, constantly pushing Ayase's characters toward frustration and misery. Ayase places much of the blame for the characters' misogynistic tendencies on the structure of Japanese society." - Eric Margolis, The Japan Times

  • "The premise is intriguing, yet the execution will undoubtedly strike some as insufficient to the task of realizing that potential. (...) Haydn Trowell’s translation is accurate and captures the feel of Ayase’s prose; however, her prose is marked by the occasional odd phrasing that proves distracting. Moreover, Ayase seemed engaged in some grand metaphor contest that required of her countless attempts at creating the one locution that was sure to remain forever with her readers, a stylistic fillip that proved jarring more often than illuminating." - Erik R. Lofgren, World Literature Today

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:

       The Forest Brims Over is presented in five chapters, each focused on a different character (helpfully named in the opening or, in the case of the final chapter, second line of the chapter). The central figures are novelist Nowatari Tetsuya and his wife Rui. Tetsuya had been reasonably successful, but his breakout work was the novella Tears, published eight years before the beginning of the novel -- "a story that followed the invigorating romantic exchanges between a young man and woman". The novella was closely based on Tetsuya's relationship with Rui -- a name that, in Japanese, is pronounced the same way as the novella's title.
       The first chapter has Tetsuya's editor, Sekiguchi Masahi, visit the author at his home, where he also meets Rui, munching away on a bowl of seeds that, it turns out, Tetsuya had been meaning to plant in a plot adjacent to their house. The next day Tetsuya summons Sekiguchi, asking him also to pick some things for him like soil and fertilizer. As he explains to his editor: "My wife has germinated".
       Yes, in the upstairs room, Rui transforms into plant-life -- eventually a veritable forest that will then also grow outside, onto the adjacent plot. The differing reactions to this turn of events by the various characters do feature in the novel, but, strikingly, no one really makes as much out of this incredible situation as one might imagine. Sure, Sekiguchi thinks: "the author's wife, who was willing to go this far, and the author himself, who had surrendered to her will, were clearly insane", but the situation is also inspiring Tetsuya to write an incredible work -- based on what is happening -- and Sekiguchi is just a middleman, doing his job; it's not his role to meddle beyond seeing to it that his publishing company gets the manuscript, he tells himself. And Tetsuya does produce another book that gets a great deal of attention, again closely based on his wife's experiences: Garden.
       The second chapter centers around Kinari Yuko, who is a student in Tetsuya's creative writing class and has an affair with him, eventually also coming to see his house with its spectacularly overgrown second floor. The third chapter features Shirasaki Kanon, who takes over as Testsuya's editor when Sekiguchi gets a new position. But Sekiguchi tells her, in regards to the upstairs plant-life situation in the Nowatari household:

Anyway, it's a problem for them to sort out. Our job is just to get manuscripts from him, so don't dig too deep into it. Do you hear me ? Don't get too involved.
       Tetsuya thinks he's covered up things well -- "my wife is out of town for a while", he tells Shirasaki -- but his new editor knows better, not least because he keeps sending her upstairs to get things for him, since he never ventures into the forest himself. Shirasaki eventually suggests to him that he should confront what has happened -- indeed, in considering material for a new work: "I want you to take your wife's perspective and think about how she sees the real you. And when you do that, what kind of conclusion do the two of you reach ?"
       The final two chapters then center around first Tetsuya, who does venture upstairs -- where: "Walking into the forest meant entering her very interiority" --, and then Rui herself.
       Each chapter also goes into the background and circumstances of the featured character, and it's noteworthy how poor their relationships are. Sekiguchi's wife leaves him, taking the children, and he hears nothing more from them, while Shirasaki is in a marriage that has grown stale, her husband frustrated at work, the situation they now find themselves in one where:
She and her husband might have been sitting close enough to touch each other if they just reached out, but an invisible glass wall stood between them -- a cursed wall that couldn't easily be shattered.
       Kinari, married, with children, finds herself in a situation where: "Her everyday living was free from want or hardship" -- yet she feels empty: "her essence was that of a hollow cavity filled with water".
       Tetsuya also carries with him some damage from the past, as he had not inherited the family kimono business as he had expected, his mother explaining the decision back then:
You act like you're dressing a doll. When you see a customer, all you think about is expressing your own sense of beauty. That's not the job of a trader. That's why, no matter how unsteady his hand might be, your brother, who takes the time to empathize with customers, to help them choose a kimono that fits their needs and wants, is better suited to take over the family business.
       Rui is twelve years younger than her husband, and has always felt somewhat in awe of him , especially his intellect. Though she always has strong feelings for him -- "Why was she unable to stop loving this man, Nowatari Tetsuya, who didn't show her even the slightest ounce of consideration ?" -- and she can't help but be frustrated by aspects of their relationship:
     To begin with, Tetsuya was much more articulate than she was. In the middle of a conversation, he would often try to sum up her opinion. This is what you mean, isn't it ? But whenever he did so, he would gradually move further and further away from whatever it was that she had actually been trying to say, and she would be left with something that she couldn't control with words.
       Ayase presents a world in which roles -- professional and familial (there's a mother-in-law figure, too) -- are hard to break out of, with especially the male characters oblivious to how that manifests itself in their relationships. Tetsuya's editors, especially Sekiguchi, try to ignore the incredible situation they find in the Nowatari household, focused only on the professional aspect, and the lives of others, such as Shirasaki's husband, Takao, are also dominated by their work-situations, all of which impacts their domestic relationships as well. So also, for example, Takao suggests about Tetsuya:
He wanted to be a great and respected novelist. And that's all there is to it. There was no malicious intent involved. He probably never even had the opportunity to realize just how awful what he was doing actually was.
       As a picture of and commentary on Japanese society, and especially the different roles and paths for women and men, The Forest Brims Over is grim. The fantastical element hanging over the story gives it a surreal feel, yet despite some of the action around that being obviously impossible in real life, it is largely treated as almost natural, giving the book an effectively eerie feel, reïnforcing the sense of the characters (and the society in general) largely kind of having blinders on, unable to see through, much less force change, even in the most outrageous circumstances. Rui and Tetsuya see the bizarre forest as a place: "separate from the outside world" -- for Rui, at first an escape, and then also perhaps beginning to open Testuya's eyes to some of what he's been so blind to. Ayase's vaguely hopeful message at the end is that the forest might just spread out there, beyond, as well.
       With Rui and Tetsuya having come to a better understanding of their situation, and the society with its various ingrained expectations they are part of, there seems some hope, in the end -- with Tetsuya's next work perhaps an actual step forward. But Ayase's radical reshaping only goes, here, so far.
       In its mix of the mundane and the fantastical it is a strange story, but The Forest Brims Over is clever in its presentation -- though also leaving much to the reader's imagination and interpretation. It is also distinctly Japanese, less accommodating to foreign readers than the work of many contemporary Japanese authors who are more obviously looking for an international audience; there are universal elements here, but the characters and their stories reflect -- often in something of a shorthand -- the conditions of modern Japan, especially in terms of relationships, both between the sexes and in the workplace. And readers certainly shouldn't expect a full-blown piece of magical realism. The translation is at times a bit awkward -- "the slightest ounce" ? (an ounce is a defined measure; it can no more be 'slight' than a gallon, mile, or microgram) -- but the resulting slightly foreign feel to the text isn't really that out of place either.
       An interesting and quite good piece of work, with considerably more to it than one might initially think.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 August 2023

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The Forest Brims Over: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Ayase Maru (彩瀬まる) was born in 1986.

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© 2023 the complete review

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