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Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

By Caroline | Books | July 7, 2010 |

By Caroline | Books | July 7, 2010 |

Kazuo Ishiguro is a wonder. His book Remains of the Day was part of my 20th-century British literature class in college, and we marveled at the easy way he portrayed this stuffy, clueless butler as he made self-realizations over the course of the book. When I picked up Artist of the Floating World, I didn’t realize it would be thematically similar, but this book is just as successful.

Where Ishiguro excels is in the unreliable narrator. I’m starting a third book now but am not far enough to make any observations, but I’ll compare to, of course, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. Where Kinsey has no self-censorship apart from basic decency, Masuji Ono is guided by etiquette in his life in postwar Japan. As a retired artist and father of two twentysomething women, he must audit his own image while looking for an agreeable marriage match for the younger daughter. Before that, though, he grapples with the realization that his daughters believe he has something to hide or moderate.

Ishiguro writes beautifully, and Sensei Ono speaks in a believably semiformal, respectful way. The difference between his older, more deferential daughter and the younger, more outspoken daughter is clear in their conversations with their father. Sensei Ono flashes back to various points in his career as an artist and talks with several former colleagues who now have mixed or negative feelings toward him. I won’t reveal anything more because Sensei Ono’s realizations are what make the book so enthralling.

Beyond the story itself, Ishiguro’s novel is full of images of pre- and postwar Japan, cultural touchstones of Sensei Ono’s life. He speaks to some invisible contemporary reader, mentioning parks as they appear to him “today” (in the late 1940s) and as he remembers them from decades past. Ishiguro uses a delicate touch and Sensei Ono’s nostalgia reminded me of the way my grandfather talked about the past. This weekend at my parents’ house we read a paragraph my grandfather wrote on the back of a photo from 1929, describing everything as if he were speaking to an audience who wasn’t familiar. Sensei Ono speaks this way and draws you into his complicated life and memories of a Japan in crisis.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Caroline’s reviews, check out her blog, Of a Golden Age.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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