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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Nails and Eyes

Fujino Kaori

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To purchase Nails and Eyes

Title: Nails and Eyes
Author: Fujino Kaori
Genre: Stories
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 138 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Nails and Eyes - US
Nails and Eyes - UK
Nails and Eyes - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Collects a novella and two stories:
    • 爪と目 ('Nails and Eyes')
    • しょう子さんが忘れていること ('What Shoko Forgets')
    • ちびっこ広場 ('Minute Fears')
  • Translated by Kendall Heitzman
  • Akutagawa Prize, 2013 (I)

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Our Assessment:

B : quite well done, though all rather disturbingly creepy

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Like the original Japanese volume, Nails and Eyes collects the novella 'Nails and Eyes' -- which was awarded the Akutagawa Prize in 2013 -- and two shorter stories, 'What Shoko Forgets' and 'Minute Fears'.
       'Nails and Eyes' is narrated by Hina, in the second person; almost the entire story is an account of a time when Hina was just a preschooler, after the death of her mother. The 'you' she is addressing -- and writing about -- is the woman who had been her father's mistress when her mother died, and who moved in with Hina and her father soon afterwards, taking over all the maternal duties: the father: "wanted someone to take care of things at home and to take charge of the little girl", and the woman, still only in her mid-twenties and working as a temp, liked the idea of not having to work, and so they decided to give it a try. Hina describes this transition, of this woman coming into her life -- but there's an omniscience to the narration, as Hina, despite sticking to speaking of (and to) 'you', is privy to some thoughts and actions of the woman that the child couldn't know.
       The father is an often absent figure, busy with work -- and then also takes on new lovers, as he finds he can't perform with the woman he has installed in their household; the woman eventually also takes a lover. Still, the father imagined a life for them together, re-starting a family, as it were; as Hina dryly notes however: "Things didn't go according to plan".
       Young Hina is clearly traumatized by the horrific death of her mother; she is possibly also responsible for it. She notes that: "From all appearances, my mother's death damaged me" -- unsurprisingly. While mostly a quiet, docile girl, the trauma did manifest itself in some ways: for one, Hina bit and chewed on her nails, to the quick. And she also wouldn't go anywhere near the balcony -- the site of her mother's death -- or even into the living room, where she could see it; when they move, the new apartment also has a balcony, which Hina again wants nothing to do with.
       The woman is very nearsighted, and wears contact lenses; she and Hina's father had met at an eye clinic. Hina's vision, on the other hand: "is incredibly good. So good that I can even fully imagine what it must be like to be extremely nearsighted like you". (As her account suggests, she's good at imagining what's going on inside the woman generally.)
       As the title of the novella suggests, nails and eyes figure prominently. A pivotal point comes when the woman's lover comes to the apartment, and she needs to get Hina out of the way for a bit, and she tells the little girl:

OK, look, I'm going to teach you something good. It's good to try not to see things. You should try it. It's good to close your eyes to things. You can do it, so just, go ahead and try it.
       Given that Hina may already be repressing quite a bit about her mother's death, this is probably not great advice; worse yet is what the woman does to make sure Hina is out of the way for a few moments. (Still, the closing-your-eyes approach seems to have worked for the woman, certainly at one significant point in her life, as is then also revealed.)
       It is here, when the woman unconscionably pushes Hina out of the way for a bit, that we learn that Hina is telling all this many years later, when she is fully grown -- and, curiously, apparently still long had maintained some sort of a relationship with this woman. As Hina tells her: "I never forgot what you said" -- and: "Even more years later [...] I repeated back to you those words I had committed to memory".
       The woman's actions, briefly bustling Hina out of the way, clearly again affected young Hina, who then acted up in pre-school -- leading to the denouement, of action and reaction, that make Hina's earlier (later) words so creepily haunting.
       'Nails and Eyes' offers very good character portraits, especially of the traumatized young Hina, and of the largely indifferent woman and how she handles becoming part of this ready-made family. Her lack of interest in Hina and her father are captured well, even as she does play her assigned part -- if without much passion or connection. She also finds the web-presence of the woman she had replaced, Hina's mother's weblog, 'Crystal-Clear Days' -- obsessed with: "bringing order to everyday life, ruling it, restraining it" -- and for a time the woman imitates what she finds there.
       A number of questions remain open in the story, but Fujino does manage an unsettling effect throughout. If ultimately perhaps a bit too vague in some details -- including where, exactly, Hina is coming from at this point when she tells this story -- it's a solid, disturbing family tale.

       'What Shoko Forgets' centers on an elderly woman who is in a rehab center after a mild stroke. In a four-bed room, a fifth person apparently comes in nightly. When he does: "Shoko remembers that they go through this every night", but she is also always forgetting what happened -- or, one has to imagine, repressing it. To the reader, it should be pretty clear -- and pretty disturbing -- what is happening .....
       This is an odd and also creepy tale, effective in the way the characters are drawn, including Shoko's daughter and adult grand-daughter ("You know she's a writer, right ? Remember ? A freelance writer ?" Shoko's daughter reminds her -- something that she would perhaps also prefer to forget). It's well-done, but unpleasantly hard to stomach, too.

       The final story, 'Minute Fears', is narrated by a mother who is looking forward to going to a wedding reception on a Saturday night, catching up with her college friends. She's getting ready, and waiting for her young son, Daiki, to return from the local 'pocket playground' he and his friends are obsessed by. Daiki is so obsessed that when a school assignment was to make a diorama of 'My Favourite Place' Daiki made one of the playground -- and then took to taking the diorama to bed with him.
       Daiki does return on time, but something clearly happened, as the boy is very unsettled -- "But Daiki simply wouldn't tell me what this was all about". She had planned on leaving him alone when she went out -- it would only be for a short time, since her husband was expected home soon -- but does then wait until her husband is home, getting to the reception quite late. Only when she gets home does she learn what is troubling Daiki -- something to do with the playground, but certainly not anything like she imagined.
       As in the other two works, Fujino plays with the unknown -- suggested, but never something one can be sure of -- here, and does a decent job of creating a disturbing atmosphere. It's not exactly horror, but Fujino plays right at the border to it. The mix of the very mundane -- the narrator's preparations for and then time at the reception, and the various thoughts that go through her mind -- and the vaguely off, such as Daiki's obsession with the playground-diorama, work well in creating atmosphere -- all leading to the shiver-inducing conclusion.

       Fujino writes and presents her pieces well, but the two shorter stories do feel rather like filler, padding out the book. Admittedly, I have great trouble with story-collections in any case -- and this is a great example of why: the two short stories are perfectly fine, but little more. I can see reading them in a magazine, but they don't add anything here. 'Nails and Eyes' is at least something more substantial; the other two feel like a sort of afterthought. They'd probably work better in a larger collection consisting solely of short stories, but make for an odd, distracting fit here.
       All three pieces do make an impression, and Fujino does handle some things consistently very well, her protagonists in particular presented -- and presenting themselves, where they narrate the stories -- very well. Her technique, of leaving some significant things unsaid, or understated, works well, but if the volume is already going to collect several pieces then a bit more variety -- maybe one which didn't employ this particular technique, which didn't aim for the same kind of sense of unease -- would have been welcome.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 August 2023

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Nails and Eyes: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Fujino Kaori was born in 1980.

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© 2023 the complete review

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