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Amrita, a Sanskrit word that literally means “immortality,” is the name of Banana Yoshimoto’s strange 1994 novel. It’s an essentially plotless tale, but deeply affecting in its blend of ennui and hope.

Amrita, by Banana Yoshimoto
Translated by
Russell F. Wasden
366 pages.
Faber and Faber, Fiction.

Sakumi is 28 and lives in an unconventional household consisting of her mother, her half-brother and her mother’s friend.

Her father is dead and step-father long gone. Sister Mayu, a drug- and alcohol-dependent actress, committed suicide and Sakumi, who has lost all her childhood memories as a result of a head injury, somberly drifts through life.

Like Yoshimoto’s other novels, this is a magical realist work. Sakumi’s brother correctly predicts an air crash and the appearance of a UFO over Tokyo, and on a trip to Saipan, Sakumi is visited by ghosts and receives telepathic messages from a friend.

These outlandish events are interjected between scene after scene of repetitive daily routines — the ballast of normalcy weighing down the flights of fancy. The effect is hypnotic.

“Amrita” tackles similar themes to Yukio Mishima’s “Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, including rebirth and the never-ending cycle of life, but from a much less grandiose viewpoint. For Sakumi, the meaning of life exists in experience, not explanation.

The fabulous and the prosaic comfortably exist side by side in Yoshimoto’s text. This is a novel that continues to echo long after it’s finished.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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