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[401] If You Follow Me – Marlena Watrous

” It’s Japanese way. This is why I feel so nervous when you don’t follow rules, like breaking a gomi law. Do you understand? ” (23,319)

Marina and Carolyn are girlfriends. Fresh out of college, they decide to start a new life teaching English abroad. Japan seems to be the place to get lost. When they arrive in the remote city Shika, the experience is so much more than just culture shock, for all that they have read up on Japan doesn’t prepare them for the stopover town, where local people have no use for the English language. That their relationship would change irrevocably would never have entered their mind.

I am a temporary person, leading a disposable life. (16,232)

Behind the meek faces and politeness are rules that overwhelmingly preside over the Japanese, a people who swear by their traditions and social rules with utmost submission. Rules cover all aspects of life in this orderly country—even down to trash disposal. Marina constantly gets in trouble for throwing the wrong trash on the wrong day. Her social solecism becomes the talk of town, although neighbors remain at bay with their opinions. Her supervisor in school, Hiro Miyoshi, who feels responsible for his foreign subordinate beyond school duty, has taken up to writing letters of admonishment to spare personal humiliation. But eventually Hiro sparks romantic feelings for Marina, only to keep them to himself because work romance is frowned upon at in Japan.

Japanese enkai is a rare and precious chance to take off the tatamae. The work face. And show the honmae. The true face. (7,108)

For the sake of politeness one often wears a mask that inevitably undermines the true self. As Marina ventures to engage the rowdy students to study English, she also comes to terms with herself. The most engrossing part of the book, besides an autistic child, two boys settling their grudge with sumo match, is Marina’s reminiscence of her father, who took his life the year before she started college. Fragments of her father’s memories often preoccupy her thoughts. The passing episodes that perforate the book turn out to be the most touching moments of If You Follow Me. At one point I thought Marina’s reflection is more interesting than the whole Japan story and her relationship struggle with Carolyn. In a way, teaching abroad helps her move towards acceptance of the loss of her father.

I feel a pang of sadness, remembering that we had an exchange almost identical to this one on the first night that we slept together. Every ending is written in its beginning, but you can’t see it until you look back. (19,264)

Despite the comic turns of events and the lost-in-translation circumstances in which a word is misunderstood due to cultural difference, the debut novel is seeped in the tension of being the outsider in an intimate, nationalistic community and the joy in finding that human nature is just the same everywhere. In attempting to escape the bleak reality of her past, Marina finds her true self living in foreign land. The book is fun and honest, full of insights about life. You must love language and culture in order to fully appreciate this novel.

355 pp. Softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


4 Responses

  1. This sounds absolutely lovely. I don’t know much about Japan but I love cultural/language studies.

  2. Hadn’t heard of this book. Sounds a little light for me but I’m glad to read your review.

  3. Matt – I love your review. And as I just started a post teaching ESL, I really want to read this. No, I’m not in a foreign country, but I am in a room with students from all over the world, and it is definitely a challenge. BUT it is also a real honor. I am already so attached to my students.

    I don’t know much about Japan either, but this may just be the book for me.

  4. I’d love to read the book for the cultural information and to see how her life in Japan changes her.

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