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Lost in Translation
Konoha Inoue wishes he could live an ordinary high school life, but strange things just seem to keep happening to him. Two years ago he was a published novelist ... under the pseudonym of a 14-year-old girl. Now he spends his afternoons in the literary club room, writing short stories for a club president who literally eats everything she reads. Tohko Amano is the name of this paper-chewing "book girl," and she's got a new task for Konoha: ghostwriting love letters for a ditzy, infatuated first-year student named Chia Takeda. But something's not right about the relationship: after doing some digging, Konoha discovers that Chia's crush, Shuji, doesn't even exist. Then he discovers a strange letter from Shuji that sounds very disturbed. And could there be a death involved? Somehow, Konoha and Tohko must use their odd talents to solve the mystery before anything worse happens.
Like a certain well-known light novel series, Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime is narrated in first person by an typically apathetic high school boy, his deadpan voice occasionally giving way to fits of sarcasm. And also like a certain well-known light novel series, Book Girl stars an eccentric but charismatic teenage girl, whose unconventional behavior and mad schemes cause the boy no end of annoyance and exasperation—but he sticks with her anyway, being pulled into all sorts of wild adventures.
But if anyone thought this was going to turn into The Melancholy of Tohko Amano, well, think again.
If Haruhi is a precise, honors-level Bachelor of Science Fiction thesis, then Book Girl is the scrappy Bachelor of Arts equivalent, with haphazard references and some sections left incomplete. With its mix-and-match genre elements, and an ambitious twist at the end, the book tries almost too hard to be everything at once: a mystery wrapped up in an enigma wrapped up in a slice-of-life slightly-magically-realistic school story. Ultimately, its most powerful tool in keeping the reader hooked—more than any fancy plot device or addictive cast of characters—is the story's ambiguous narrative, switching back and forth between Konoha's matter-of-fact storytelling to (what might be) an inner monologue to (what might be) a literary excerpt. What the heck is going on? is the prevailing mood for much of the first half, but thankfully, those who keep on reading are eventually rewarded with answers.
Many of these answers lead to even more questions, though, and that's where the author's ambitions start to come apart, bit by bit. In the beginning and middle stages, it's fun watching the mystery build: What's the deal with Shuji? Is he a ghost? A figment of the imagination? What's Takeda trying to do? What's with all the allusions to famous 20th-century author Osamu Dazai? Does Tohko really just sit there and eat books, or does she have some kind of special power? Once the endgame approaches, though, it appears that Mizuki Nomura has written herself into a corner: several recently-introduced characters suddenly get pulled into a boilerplate whodunit climax, where everyone stands around for ages explaining things to each other. While Nomura's attempt to misdrect and surprise the reader is admirable, such twists aren't worth it if one has to write an extremely unlikely murder-suicide scenario to make it work.
Ah, but that's not the ending ending. The whole book is about misdirection and defying expectations (the early chapters, for example, are smattered with pointless fanservice moments that belie the darker content later on), and the final twist is sure to leave more than a few jaws hanging. It's a brilliant stroke of plotting that's out there in plain sight the whole time, is obscured by the bias of having everything narrated through Konoha's eyes. The solution to the "true" mystery of Book Girl is far more elegant than the murder-mystery denouement: it's a white-knuckled finale packed with angst, redemption, inspiration, and—oddly enough—an impassioned endorsement for the works of Osamu Dazai.
In the end, maybe that's why one might accuse Nomura of being too ambitious: is this supposed to be a high school mystery, or a character-driven Haruhi-style comedy, or a treatise on coping with teenage depression, or a primer on 20th-century Japanese literature, or what? Somehow, Book Girl is all of those things, but never digs too far into any of those subjects, and annoyingly leaves a few plot points open (because there's a second volume, of course). And that's why, in the analogy mentioned above, it's most like a B.A. thesis with uncompleted sections.
Although the plot elements are sophisticated in the way they twist around each other, the book's actual writing style is far more straightforward—for better and for worse. As one might expect, the combination of a teenage target audience and Japanese-to-English prose translation results in simple sentences and paragraphs, almost telegraphic in style. In some places this works well, like when Konoha is matter-of-factly narrating the events around him, but it also dilutes some of the humor and rhythm that the original must have had. Even more awkwardly written is the murder-mystery portion, where the characters' lines start to sound more like a plot summary than actual dialogue. From a cultural standpoint, the use of Osamu Dazai's literature as a plot element may also be lost on English-speaking readers, despite the book's attempts to explain his significance. (Imagine, by comparison, Japanese readers trying to make sense of a novel built around the works of Ernest Hemingway.) A little glossary section about Dazai's cultural impact could have gone a long way in this translation.
At its worst, Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime might be dismissed as an overambitious pastiche of light novel, manga and anime elements: saucy high school comedy, convoluted murder-mystery, pseudo-philosophical mindbender, and whiny adolescent rant. But at its best, this story accomplishes far more than most light novels would dare, simply because of those ambitions: at first it engages the curious side of the brain, and then the logic and puzzle-solving portions, and then dives into a grand, heart-pounding catharsis and an inspirational (if mawkish) finale. Most stories are considered a success just for accomplishing one of those things. So, while Book Girl's first volume is occasionally sloppy and leaves some threads hanging, it's still one hell of a ride. Hop aboard.
Overall : B-
Story : C+
Art : B-
+ A variety of plot elements, unexpected twists, and a cleverly planned ending make this a satisfying read.
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