Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

3Snow Country is a novel the International Reads Group over on YouTube selected for our December group read. Kawabata is an acclaimed Japanese author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature. To be honest, my knowledge and experience with Japanese literature is severely lacking so I was overly enthusiastic to read this one. What I found was a very strange and sometimes awkward reading experience.

The story follows a man, Shimamura, who meets and has an affair with Komako, a geisha. That’s about all I got for a plot synopsis.

Many have likened the book to a haiku in novel form which is an interesting idea. Poetry packs every single word with so much meaning and precision. Nothing is wasted. Snow Country reads exactly like that – as if every single letter on the page holds something of intense value. But the value can be fleeting for the average reader. For the first 60 pages, I was mostly lost. Kawabata’s writing is disjointed and often lacks any sort of transitions from one idea to the next. While this technique is handy for a novel ultimately about the inability to connect with those around us, it leads to the reader being unable to grab onto something in the story or to find a connection with the characters. That’s probably the point, I suppose, but makes for a difficult reading experience.

What really works for Snow Country are the last 30 or so pages. The ending is superb and makes the beginning and the end worth all the fuss. It’s a novel I really need to read again knowing now how everything will unfold. The symbolism is worthy of great analysis and would work wonders in a classroom setting. A word of warning, however – the story is bleak, cold, and deeply depressing. The characters are swallowed by an intense loneliness that makes them bitter and unlikable. You need to be in a certain headspace before picking this one up. Despite these challenges, the book readers so very, very quickly.

Ultimately, Kawabata’s technical ability deserves a five star rating and a Nobel Prize, but the enjoyment factor for the reader doesn’t come close until the very end. My interest is piqued concerning his other work, though, so I’ll continue to pick his books up in the future. I wonder if he ever wrote any poetry? Because that would definitely be worth a read.

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