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The Asian Review of Books: "Tokyo Fiancee is sparse, sardonic, intelligent, cross-culturally aware, simultaneously detached and engage"

Date: Feb 19 2009

Westerners sojourning in Asia having cultural and linguistic misunderstandings with the opposite sex are so common in Asian fiction as to be cliche. But as Amelie Nothomb shows, there is life in the old theme yet, and that it is possible, gloriously so, to rise above the commonplace.

Amelie (the novel is largely autobiographic) is a young Belgian woman who offers French lessons as a way to learn Japanese. She ends up having an affair with her first student, the well-to-do and somewhat feckless Rinri, a relationship through which we explore the peculiarities, and beauties, of Japan, the Japanese and Japanese culture. He is rather more in love with her than she is with him; Amelie's love affair is as much with Japan (where she spent her first years) - the food, the mountains - as with Rinri.

Tokyo Fiancee is sparse, sardonic, intelligent, cross-culturally aware, simultaneously detached and engaged, reminding me both of Camus and the recent Woody Allen film set in Barcelona. One also can't help thinking that if Amelie had been American, this surely would have been a very different book: the Gallic take on Japan gives us Anglo-Saxons a different and somewhat oblique looking-glass in which to regard our own views of the region.

All the interplay of culture and, especially, language apart, Tokyo Fiancee can also be read as a love story … of sorts. Amelie considers it koi, a romantic relationship without commitment, companionship-on-demand, and a way of experiencing Japan and learning Japanese. Rinri, on the hand, is altogether more serious about it, or at least thinks he is.

Amelie Nothomb has a keen eye for the idiosyncrasies of Japan, recognizable to anyone who has lived in a place where Japanese products and department stores are common. But she also writes wonderfully of Japan, its treasures great and small, while also writing honestly about the foibles of foreigners in a strange land.

Reviewed by Peter Gordon

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