Dystopic glimpse of another culture

Book Review: Sweet Daruma, A Japan Satire by Janice Valerie Young iUniverse

Stuffy, crowded subway cars with perverted salary men. Poser gangsters in plastic bathroom slippers and adolescent girls selling their own excretions to buy the designer bag of their dreams. This is the dystopic snapshot of Japan that Janice Valerie Young portrays in her novel Sweet Daruma: A Japan Satire.

The book begins with Magda, the protagonist, arriving in Tokyo as yet another Canadian responding to a “Teach English in Japan” ad, hoping to rediscover herself. Magda is off to a jolting start from the very beginning—she comes face-to-face with the claustrophobia of the Tokyo subway, along with a suicide attempt by a salaryman whom she narrowly rescues.

Little does she know that her work as a part of “Anne of Grey Tokyo Emergency English Response Team” is going to involve more rescuing of sorts. Like the 911 team, this group of fluent English speakers helps Tokyo residents who are in desperate need of an English translation, such as translating a Japanese news report on the spot.

Oddities startle Magda from every corner, from “hole in the ground” Japanese squatting toilets that Magda first mistakes for a shoe washer to wailing ramen carts at midnight. Her co-worker, September, doesn’t go by his real name—“Jun”—because it’s “so trite,” and Hirohisa, her neighbour, devotes his spare time to taking care of a beer-drinking pet monkey and building big darumas—wooden dolls believed to bring good luck.

Young pays special attention to detail, especially in dialogues, to nuance the differences between Magda’s native English and Japanese English—whether it is September’s near-perfect, but somewhat stilted tone, or a Japanese woman describing something as “big price.”

Magda comes to realize that Japan isn’t the escape she was looking for—instead, what she finds are gray skies and a growing realization that her second chance might not be so rosy or glorious. Excitement is absent from her experience until Hirohisa, observing a lady with a million yen in her purse, snatches it out of sheer impulse and presents it to Magda and her “team” at the end of Part One.

At this point, there is an abrupt break in plot progression, and Part Two consists of self-reflection from each of the characters in first- person narrative. When the story picks up again in Part Three with the team on the run, it resembles a hastily thought out action movie with too many holes in it.

There exists a kernel of authenticity in Young’s description of Japan that prevents the novel from being entirely outrageous. I enjoyed the frequent appearance of Japanese slang, such as “keitai” (telephone) and “yamamba” (skanky high school girls with overly dyed hair and orange skin) throughout the story, with the helpful insertion of a glossary at the back.

However, while Young’s depiction of Japan hits all the right spots, the lack of a consistent pace is a problem.

A sudden switch in the narrative from limited omniscient in Part One to first person in Part Two creates a stagnant point that moves the story forward. The short, DaVinci Code-esque chapters of Parts One and Three read like a cheap ploy to lead the reader on with shallow suspense.

Sweet Daruma has its hilarious and captivating moments—including Magda’s letter to her idealistic ex-boyfriend back home—but there is something missing in the book that makes me think twice before giving it a secure thumbs-up.

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