Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich, Goodbye Tsugumi's first person narrative moves between the beauty and truth of poetry and a very commonplace, youthful diary voice, inspiring and surprising with heartbreakingly honest insights into a young woman's last summer spent at her childhood home. In a careful examination of the relationship between two teenage cousins, Yoshimoto blends memory and imagination, merging the particular realities of Japanese life with the timeless evocation of a sensitive adolescence and a longing for one's lost childhood.
Nineteen year-old, introspective Maria Shirakawa has lived her entire youth in a seaside town, waiting patiently with her mother for her father to obtain a divorce from his first wife. With her father away in Tokyo, Maria resides in the guest house of the Yamamoto Inn, owned by her aunt and uncle, and grows up there with her cousin, Tsugumi, a lifelong invalid with a penchant for maliciousness, selfishness, and who "was brilliantly sneaky."
Soon, though, Maria's father is finally able to bring Maria and her mother to Tokyo where she finds herself surrounded by a "traditional family," immersed in university life, and quickly approaching an impending adulthood.
The strength of this book emerges rather quickly when the two cousins go their separate ways and begin to suffer and change. Tsugumi invites Maria back to spend one last summer at the soon to be demolished Yamamoto Inn, and they find themselves reckoning with an overwhelming need for emotional balance in their lives, struggling to save something they fear will soon be lost forever, and attempting to discover their places in the world. Both learn that "no matter where you are, you're always a bit on your own, always an outsider," and that "when you get something in this world, you lose something too -- that's just the way things work."
At its core, Maria's story is about the slow cumulative registering, over years, of one's own misjudgments and misconceptions about the true meaning of home and family and the power of our earliest friendships. To Maria, this last summer at her childhood home is precious because of her awareness that it will not last; Tsugumi is beautiful and exquisite to her, because she believes Tsugumi's life, because of her health problems, will be short-lived.
Yoshimoto is most effective when she sketches Maria's painful and confusing fleeting moments of anxiety and growing awareness that this beautiful time in her life is brief and transitory. This is in a style clearly connected to the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware, which translated literally means "the pathos of things," but can be better described as intangibility, or evanescence. It is the idea that things are beautiful because they are short-lived; it is joy tinged with regret.
Although distinctly Japanese in her examination of the concept of mono no aware, Yoshimoto also explores the universal themes of love, sorrow, and saying goodbye. With a few delicate strokes of the pen, she creates a book which can leave readers reflective, aware of their own mortality and of the core of each moment -- a kind of shining diamond of meaning which only comes out of the poetry of the work, the result of the play or that sacred space between narrator and reader. Like Maria, one is left here with a longing for one's earlier years -- and bids farewell to these two cousins with a clear understanding of what is meant by nostalgia: "the pain of knowing that this powerful yearning will fade." Yet Yoshimoto also allows us to leave with the cousins' understanding that "each one of us continues to carry the heart of each self we've ever been, at every stage along the way, and a chaos of everything good and rotten. . .we alone support the weight of ourselves."