Monday, June 20, 2011

Review: "Who is Mr Satoshi" by Jonathan Lee

Posted at (Amazon Vine).

Forty-one year old Rob Fossick has fallen into deep depression following the death of his pregnant wife in a tragic accident. Formerly a successful society photographer, he now shuns company and pops pills, while occasionally visiting his semi-coherent mother in her care home. The story opens with her tragic death following a fall on the patio. Her last wish was to have a mysterious parcel delivered to a ‘Mr Satoshi’ in Japan.

His mother’s best (female) friend, Freddie, is also a resident, and after the funeral she confirms to Rob that Mr Satoshi is actually English, a Reggie something, who was a post-war boyfriend of his mother who had travelled to Japan to work with the Occupation forces. Somehow they had lost touch.

Fossick’s publisher is coincidentally also keen for him to go to Japan, hoping this will re-ignite his appetite for photography and turn the revenue taps back on. So despite Fossick’s self-absorbed apathy, he nevertheless finds himself in Tokyo on the hunt for Mr Satoshi. Eventually he will locate him and in the last pages the mystery will be revealed.

Author Jonathan Lee took a first in English Literature at Bristol University, and later as a solicitor worked in Tokyo: naturally enough, the settings in the novel are Bristol and Tokyo. In the course of his studies, Mr Lee absorbed the rules of literary writing, the need for inventive description and vivid metaphor. I imagine him diligently working on his draft text, clause by clause, trying to turn matter-of-fact descriptive prose into something more ornate. Occasionally this results in infelicities such as: “I felt my heart beating hard in my head.” (p. 5).

Lee’s other main character is the twenty-something English-speaking student, Chiyoko Kobayashi, daughter of a prostitute and part-time receptionist at a Love Hotel. Slightly inexplicably she takes a shine to Fossick and ends up doing all the leg-work in the hunt, as Fossick speaks no Japanese. The subsequent plot unfolds at a somewhat leisurely pace and the revelations, when they eventually come, are unsurprising.

In Fay Weldon’s taxonomy, this is a ‘bad-good’ book. Mr Lee clearly has promise as a writer but this underpowered first novel must count as his apprentice piece. The plot is slow-moving and ultimately rather unengaging; Lee spends time and effort trying to establish and paint his characters but they end up rather stock and shallow; finally, his descriptive writing, while often inventive, can overwhelm his narrative.

I found the most exciting and authentic writing was where Lee lets his characters off the leash a little, giving them sardonic, wisecracking lines: humour can be so much more refreshing than earnestness. I would encourage Mr Lee to persevere, to find his own voice and to let raw technique retire to the servant-role where it belongs.