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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Sayonara Bar

Susan Barker

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To purchase Sayonara Bar

Title: Sayonara Bar
Author: Susan Barker
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 431 pages
Availability: Sayonara Bar - US
Sayonara Bar - UK
Sayonara Bar - Canada

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Our Assessment:

A- : satisfying novel of contemporary Japan from various perspectives

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 21/5/2005 Rachel Hore
The Guardian . 14/1/2006 Elena Seymenliyska
The Times . 4/2/2006 Christina Koning

  From the Reviews:
  • "Marred only by the occasional chronological glitch, these three narratives blend into an unusual but satisfying whole." - Rachel Hore, The Guardian

  • "Susan Barker's debut is an entertaining enough caper (...) but the three narratives don't quite gel. (...) But there is pleasure to be had in the glimpses of modern Japan" - Elena Seymenliyska, The Guardian

  • "On it own, this tale of misfits trapped in a nightclub limbo would be enjoyable enough, but Barker has given it the pace and excitement of a thriller -- or of the manga comics to which Watanabe is addicted. Funny, crisply written and engaging, Sayonora Bar offers sharp insights into some of the less palatable realities of life in 21st century Japan." - Christina Koning, The 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:

       Sayonara Bar was apparently originally meant to be titled 'Tsunami Bar', but given the events in South East Asia it was apparently thought wiser to change that. It worked out well enough: the more melancholy farewell connotations of the new title in some ways are more appropriate than the overwhelming original one.
       Sayonara Bar is set in contemporary Osaka, narrated in revolving chapters by three of the characters: Mary, a young English woman who works as a hostess in the Sayonara Bar of the title, Watanabe, who does the cooking at the bar, and Mr Sato, a fairly typical Japanese salaryman at Daiwa Trading who has recently been widowed.
       Mary speaks Japanese well, and earns good money as a hostess -- that peculiarly Japanese institution where businessmen pay for women to talk to them, serve them drinks, laugh at their jokes, and the like. The Sayonara Bar isn't the most high-class establishment, but it does okay, run by one tough Mama-san. Complicating matters, Mary's boyfriend is Mama-san's son, a young yakuza-wannabe named Yuji.
       Watanabe is obsessed with Mary, but also so shy that she doesn't even realise he's interested in her. He also sees himself as her protector -- which is how he wound up with a job as the kitchen help at the bar. Watanabe is also convinced that he has some rather unique abilities, having conquered -- for the most part -- hyperspace (or so he thinks), allowing him to follow figures from afar, and to perceive most everything about them. Barker handles this particularly well, with Watanabe's out-of-body experiences convincingly and enthusiastically rendered -- as are his occasional (and hilarious) failures ("Such is the dazzling complexity of hyperspace that it can occasionally induce mental fatigue", is how he excuses them).
       The straight-laced Mr Sato is dragged much against his will to the Sayonara Bar one evening, but it's definitely not his kind of place. Still overwhelmed with incredible grief at the loss of his wife, he is unable to really let himself go. Still, a connexion is made there -- this time with more than a whiff of the outright supernatural. One of the other hostesses pursues him, for reasons it takes quite a while to understand.
       The three narratives and very distinct voices (and fates) crisscross, but for the most part move on different tracks. Barker uses them to give a solid overview of a big slice of contemporary Japan -- more approachably than David Mitchell, less intense than Carl Shuker's The Method Actors --, the shifting back and forth effectively holding the reader's attention. When Yuji screws his yakuza-boss over, dragging Mary into his ugly business (with a big push from controlling Mama-san), and Mr Sato has a wonderful opportunity dangling in front of him, the suspense ratchets up nicely too: Sayonara Bar isn't a pure thriller, but the second half is quite a decent stab in that direction.
       For the most part, Barker doesn't overexplain the Japanese elements for her gaijin audience: there's the obligatory explanation of her hostess job ("When I told a friend back in London what I was doing out here she was shocked. She thought hostess was a polite synonym for prostitute or something. I had to explain to her that it's nothing like that."), but generally she slips in the information (such as how the yakuza operate (and what it is)) pretty deftly. Since Mary's voice accounts for just (roughly) a third of the book, there's also not too much about the expatriate experience in Japan. Indeed, the balance between the three voices is particularly well-struck -- as are the different story-threads.
       Sayonara Bar isn't overly ambitious in the way so many expat novels are. It doesn't try to be definitive, as if any one experience abroad could sum up a whole country or all the possibilities. It helps that Mary is not a complete innocent abroad, too, a stranger comfortable in the land, but also aware that life there is just a temporary stop-over for her. The two intriguing Japanese narrators are a bit far-fetched, but Barker utilises them so well that it works.
       Sayonara Bar is clever and smart, and it is darn good entertainment Recommended.

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Sayonara Bar: Reviews: Susan Barker: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Susan Barker was born in 1978.

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© 2006-2021 the complete review

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