Akutagawa-prize-winning author, Akiko Itoyama, is known to focus on human relations in her work and with “In Pursuit of Lavender” she explores the relationship between two mentally unstable people as they hit the road together on a journey across Japan.
Hanada, the female protagonist, is 21 and fluent in the Hakata dialect of northern Kyushu in Japan’s southwest. After becoming haunted by an auditory hallucination that plays over and over in her mind — “twenty yards of linen are worth a coat” — she attempts suicide and is admitted to a psychiatric hospital. While in the prisonlike hospital she meets Nagoyan, a 24-year-old company employee suffering from depression who insists that he is a native of Tokyo despite actually being from Nagoya. One day the two of them decide to escape and the story of this strange pair’s 1,000-km journey across Kyushu together makes up the bulk of the novel. As they head southward in a junky car, they struggle with the mental crises that constantly assault them and pick destinations at random as they sightsee, quarrel and yearn for the fragrance of lavender — which apparently has stress-relieving properties.
When they ultimately achieve their goal on reaching southern part of Kyushu, however, the couple suddenly make a decision that will leave the reader in astonishment and the novel with an open end.
Itoyama’s characters are realistic and the dialogues witty, however, the storytelling is a little shallow and fails to bring to the surface the themes it develops. So while the novel is written in the first-person, making it easy for readers to put themselves in Hanada’s shoes, the lack of depth in the writing makes it hard to actually get under her skin.