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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Thorn Puller

Ito Hiromi

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To purchase The Thorn Puller

Title: The Thorn Puller
Author: Ito Hiromi
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 299 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Thorn Puller - US
The Thorn Puller - UK
The Thorn Puller - Canada
Dornauszieher - Deutschland
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Japanese title: とげ抜き 新巣鴨地蔵縁起
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Jeffrey Angles

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Our Assessment:

B+ : raw; impressively creatively presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times A+ 10/12/2022 Eric Margolis
World Lit. Today . 3-4/2023 Erik R. Lofgren

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ito folds in the mythic with the mundane to connect the everyday types of suffering with the most divine kind of metamorphosis. This shapeshifting work flexes innovative literary devices while maintaining a Joycean directness in its approach to the crude banalities of life. Ito and translator Jeffrey Angles have achieved something special with the author’s first novel to be translated into English (.....) The musical, playful language makes the story not only a joy to read but adds dense layers of spiritual, historical and literary depth to one woman’s tale. From a literary perspective, Ito’s writing achieves one-of-a-kind moments throughout the book. (...) Thematically, The Thorn Puller is a kind of classic humanist novel where genuine connection with the natural world and Ito’s deeper identity offers solace in the face of suffering." - Eric Margolis, The Japan Times

  • "Working collaboratively with the author, Jeffrey Angles, a recognized poet in both English and Japanese, has done a wonderful job translating this work. (...) The chapters feel episodic, but a temporal progression eventually reveals itself, for there is a persistent sense of circularity occasioned by the protagonist’s constant travel from the US to Japan and back again. The novel spirals toward its conclusion: the resolute inevitability that is death, but such an ending would be too trite." - 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 Thorn Puller is a creative work of autofiction, narrator and author Hiromi Ito describing her life between the United States, where she lives with her husband and one of her daughters, and Japan, where her parents still live(d). Descriptive chapter titles often include a reference to her -- beginning with the first, "Ito Returns to Japan and Finds Herself in a Pinch" -- and the novel presents episodes from over several years.
       The title refers to, as translator Angles explains in his Introduction, a statue in the Koganji Temple in Sugamo: "of the bodhisattva known as the "Thorn-Pulling Jizo" (Toge-nuki Jizo), believed to have the ability to remove the "thorns" of suffering that afflict worshippers". (As, however, Ito amusingly notes late in the novel when she takes her husband there: "I wanted to take him to "see" Jizo, but the main deity at the temple is never on display. Had I ever even seen it with my own eyes ? No I hadn't".) In fact, Ito has any number of thorns to deal with here. Mostly they are physical ailments, from her parents getting old and infirm to her (considerably older) husband's health issues and then her second daughter's problems.
       The Thorn Puller is full of physical decline and failure, matter-of-factly addressed. Ito notes at one point that: "I can talk on and on about menstruation -- it seems I always have more to say", and that seems to go for most of what she covers here, viscerally and straight to the heart of the matter (so also, e.g.: "my period came out in a big gush -- a ferocious ball of energy taking the form of blood"). While it is her mother who is most incapacitated -- and in hospital care much of the time then --, others also have physical issues, including her father and the men in her life. The Thorn Puller is very much a work about how our bodies fail us, and the burdens of it, on ourselves and on others, with Ito struggling to deal with, inter alia: "Mom's suffering, Dad's suffering, my husband's suffering".
       There is a whole lot of back and forth, too, between Japan and the United States, Ito seemingly constantly flying over to Japan for shorter and longer stays, sometimes with her youngest daughter in tow. When she is not physically there, she is constantly in phone contact, speaking to her father in Japan daily from the US, or then with her husband and middle daughter in the United States. (At one point her daughter would: "call every two hours, every hour, sometimes every half hour".)
       Ito is both fiercely independent and feels a great sense of duty to family (though she is also on her third marriage ...). Her first husband was Japanese, but she clearly was unsuited to the life they had, finding herself constantly thinking:

Smash the home, smash the family. Then, I finally did it. I destroyed our family. I moved to California.
       Elsewhere she sums up:
     I left my parents, had lots of sex, and gave birth to my daughters. At some point, I found I'd become independent. I was running a household, raising children, saving money, and doing all the things that my "good-for-nothing" father couldn't. I fought for my daughters, I ran to help my parents when they were in crisis. Both my parents and society at large expected me to care for them in their old age, and I intended to follow through.
       She has a lot to deal with even beyond her parents and this constant to and fro -- with a college-aged daughter in need of help, an elementary-school-aged daughter to take care of, and a much older husband who is also worried about his physical decline (there are dogs, too ...). Ito does not so much complain about her lot as simply describe the enormous weight of it -- down to observations such as:
Every time I return to my place in Japan, I feel as if I'm stuck under a cover with a stinky fart, and find myself wishing I could abandon home altogether. I've felt that way for a long time.
       But she dutifully continues to try to do her best.
       If the subject matter is a not unfamiliar one, it is the presentation that makes The Thorn Puller of particular interest. Ito is best-known as a poet -- and calls herself that, rather than simply a writer, for example -- and parts of the narrative do shift towards poem-form at times. More significantly, however, in each chapter Ito 'borrows' voices and writes in a form inspired by a wide variety of influences -- giving credit (and explanation) at the conclusion of each chapter. So, for example, at the end of the chapter 'Sparrow Chases the Old Woman Away' she notes:
I borrowed the voices of Kenji Miyazawa in his poem "Strong in the Rain," Osamu Dazai from his story collection Fairy Tales, Madison's World Dog Encyclopedia, Doctor Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham, Dakota Fanning's performance in I Am Sam, the late tenth-century noblewoman Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book, and the performers Hitoshi Ueki and Yukio Aoshima.
       This makes for a stylistically very interesting and quite varied work.
       Much here is very raw and direct -- extending also to the rare scenes of ... physical and psychological well-being, as when she writes about her artist-husband:
     Not long before, a friend who thought highly of his artwork had come to visit. That got my husband's cock hard. A few week's later, someone else came to visit too. That made his cock even harder.
     I'd followed Jizo's advice and praised my husband to the skies. As a result, my husband's cock, as well as his sense of self-reliance, had grown long and proud. Its color and luster improved as well.
       The physical dominates -- even when it doesn't have to do with illness, as Ito often harps on the uncomfortable heat and humidity, for example -- but language itself is also an issue: Ito frequently remarks on her daughters' speech in both Japanese and English, and the mixing of the two, depending also on their circumstances; she also occasionally struggles in one language or the other, as with the medical diagnoses that are explained to her. (The difficulty of written Japanese, especially when using a computer, also come up.)
       With its focus on the physical -- mostly: the body rebelling, failing, irritating -- is an often unpleasant read; it can be a lot to take, of this sort of thing. But there's a great vibrancy to it as well, both in Ito's character and in the language. The novel never bogs down, as illness- or care-giving-memoirs so easily can. Ito is wonderfully caught up in her narrative -- down to such moments as when she realizes: "My imagination is carrying me away. Let me get back to the story". The play of influence, of others' stories and performances -- allusions that an English-speaking audience naturally can't understand in the same way as a Japanese one -- is strong enough that even if not obvious to the reader still resonates on some level.
       The Thorn Puller can seem at times too blunt, and the subject matter might be a bit much for some readers to take, but there's a great deal of arresting material here, and the presentation is always at least interesting. It is a fascinating piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 December 2022

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The Thorn Puller: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Itō Hiromi (伊藤 比呂美) was born in 1955.

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© 2022-2023 the complete review

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