Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa
By: Benjamin Constable
Source: Advanced reading copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada
What writer Benjamin Constable needs is a real-life adventure wilder than his rampant imagination. And who better to shake up his comfortable Englishman-in-Paris routine than the enigmatic Tomomi “Butterfly” Ishikawa, who has just sent a cryptic suicide note?She’s planted a slew of clues—in the pages of her journal, on the hard drive of her computer, tucked away in public places, under flowerpots, and behind statues. Heartbroken, confused, and accompanied by an imaginary cat, Ben embarks upon a scavenger hunt leading to charming and unexpected spaces, from the hidden alleys of Paris to the cobblestone streets of New York City.
But Butterfly’s posthumous messages are surprisingly well informed for the words of a dead person, and they’re full of confessions of a past darkened by insanity, betrayal, and murder. The treasures Ben is unearthing are installments of a gruesome memoir. Now he must draw a clear line between the real and surreal if he is to save himself, Butterfly, and what remains of their crazy and amazing friendship.
I received a copy of this novel from Simon & Schuster Canada in exchange for an honest review. It was described as a cross between Haruki Murakami and the movie Amelie, which immediately piqued my interest since a) I enjoyed reading Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (review) and b) Amelie is one of my favourite movies ever. This novel will be available for purchase on June 4.
This book is part of the Books on France Reading Challenge 2013 that I am participating in.
May contain some very minor spoilers ahead!
It took a few chapters to get into the story but once I was acquainted with the characters–especially Ben Constable–and the situation he finds himself in, Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa was an interesting novel that I couldn’t put down. On one level it’s pretty whimsical and quirky but it can also be quite bizarre and dark as well, especially when Ben’s adventures takes a rather mysterious turn. There is something wondrous and romantic about Tomomi leaving Ben a trail of clues across Paris–and later New York City–and uncovering her past. His romp across Paris was an interesting one, uncovering a different side of Paris I haven’t read about in other novels and that I didn’t seen when I was there; it’s local and colourful and overall just fascinating. It’s a pity that his exploration of the City of Lights was rather brief; the bulk of the story takes place in New York City since Tomomi grew up there; I would have rather have read more from Paris.
The blurred lines between fact and fiction plays a major role in this novel and feeds into the magical realism of the overall story. Are Tomomi’s stories and accounts real? Real or imagined, her stories certainly reflects her inner turmoils, insecurities and concerns about death, the future and her relationships with other people as well, in a way, her perception of herself. Constable does a wonderful job in capturing her despair in a way that’s reminiscent of other novels written by Japanese authors. Tomomi’s outlook can be pretty confusing to follow and very negative, which is sad especially when you juxtapose it with Ben who, while drifting through life himself, has a much more relaxed and positive outlook to life compared to her.
Speaking of which, I found that I couldn’t quite connect with Ben, at least not at first. The reader learns bits and pieces about him and his life along the way but in a way I never really connected with him until he started interacting with Beatrice, a person he meets by chance amidst the quests that Tomomi set out for him. Despite of this, I found Ben to be a sympathetic character (partly because of some of the things he goes through) and oddly charming.
It’s also interesting that we learn bits and pieces about Ben and Tomomi’s friendship over the course of this novel. At one point Ben sort of describes their friendship as this one long and uncompleted conversation that never really starts and never really ends. I find his explanation to be rather melancholic but also oddly romantic. Yet there’s so much uncertainty about their friendship especially when it’s revealed that Tomomi was holding back quite a bit which was also fascinating and adds to the culmination of the story.
Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa was overall a strange experience but very interesting. Once you get a sense of Ben’s world and what he’s going through, the story does grab you and takes you on this quirky ride. I enjoyed reading the twists and turns in the story, trying to figure out example what was going on. Readers who enjoy magical realism, the whimsical side of Paris and New York City, a good mystery, Japanese literature (a la Haruki Murakami) and French movies like Amelie and Jeux d’Enfants should check this novel out.