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Globe and Mail: "a melancholic, coy, and wry little book."

Date: Feb 9 2009

The ahh-ness of a good love story Japanese art and literature are influenced by the idea that the most beautiful things are those that leave you with a feeling of melancholy or spiritual longing. Imperfect, unfinished, and transient things are described as mono no aware , a particularly poignant and nearly untranslatable Japanese sentiment meaning literally the "ahh-ness" of all things, or the happy-sadness of life.

Amélie Nothomb's thin, spare roman-à-clef deftly navigates the mono no aware of a cross-cultural love affair between the Belgian author and Rinri, a sweet and enigmatic Japanese rich kid. The result is a melancholic, coy, and wry little book.

Nothomb, known for her ear for dialogue and her unapologetic solipsism, is a literary celebrity in France and her native Belgium, where her books (she produces about one a year) are snapped up in the hundreds of thousands by a cultish fan base. Born in Kobe, Nothomb has claimed that leaving Japan at the age of five was a "wrenching experience." Like her previous Japan novel, Fear and Trembling, Tokyo Fiancée exudes a longing for all things Japanese measured with a frustration for the country's opaqueness.

All the weirdness of Japan is herein — the obsession with gadgetry and high-tech, the obsessive politeness of the Japanese, riotous mispronunciations and malapropisms... But none of this feels old or contrived for cheap laughs. Nothomb manages to juggle the very real quirkiness of her subject matter with a kind of longing for Japan and the Japanese aesthetic.

Unlike Fear and Trembling, which detailed a young woman's ritual humiliation at the hands of a Japanese company, none of the characters in Tokyo Fiancée feel like caricatures. Although Nothomb's sardonic wit is ever-present in the narrative, she nimbly sidesteps stereotypes of the Japanese, instead writing a sophisticated comedy of errors. And underneath the comedy is a softer, almost naive, sensitivity to ephemera, mostly absent in Fear and Trembling.

The novel opens with Nothomb surmising that the most efficient way to learn Japanese is to teach French. Her first, and apparently only, student is the wiry, romantic, slick, white-Mercedes-driving Rinri. Amélie and Rinri's student-teacher relationship changes abruptly after Rinri scrapes hardened cheese fondue from Amelie's hands with his teeth. They enter into a whimsical love affair, complicated, or perhaps made more alluring, by the language barrier.

Language or the apparent uselessness of language for real communication is a through line in the novel. Amélie wants to speak Japanese but is stuck at the level of a five-year-old. Rinri sees French as a language that will free him from the cultural constraints of Japan. In the presence of Rinri's Japanese friends they are forced to communicate in the common language of English.

And none of the languages seems to facilitate a real understanding. Nothomb goes so far as to write, "The worst accidents in life are accidents of language." Beyond the very sweet and lyrical story of Rinri and Amelie, Tokyo Fiancée explores the way language keeps people, particularly lovers, at arms length.

Early in the book, Nothomb mistakes the Japanese word asobu (literally "play") as referring to some kind of game. The word, she finds out, actually means anything that is not work. "In Japanese, the minute you're not working, it's asobu." The word accurately describes the success of Tokyo Fiancée. The novel works best when it is "playing," getting larded only slightly with a rather heavy passage when Nothomb goes hiking alone in the mountains, experiencing, among other things, "the sacred breath of the universe that heralds the dawn." Such passages are mercifully few.

Tokyo Fiancée will appeal to Japanophiles but also to anyone with a romantic streak or an affinity for the intricacies of language and culture. It is a book with a bittersweet ahh-ness.

Catherine Hanrahan is a Toronto writer. Her first novel, Lost Girls and Love Hotels was set in Japan, where she lived for five years.

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