The journey of Marina, a 22-year-old woman teaching English in rural Japan, resembles sweeping waves that call back to her namesake, where she is pushed and pulled into the foreign waters that are Japan and its strict codes of social conduct. Marina’s job brings in a host of local Japanese characters, fellow teachers who seek out lessons from her as well as the students who study her as though she were an art project.
All the while, the center of Marina’s story is isolation, a feeling that Malena Watrous captures poignantly in her debut novel, If You Follow Me (Harper Perennial). With her confusion with the Japanese gomi (garbage) laws to the growing tensions with her girlfriend, Carolyn, and her budding friendship with her supervisor, Hiroshi Miyoshi, Marina’s immediate issues continues to feed her isolation along with her distress over her father’s suicide. Despite all of this, Marina maintains her dry and biting style with commentary that is captivating and engaging.
Marina’s interactions with her co-workers, students, and neighbors, though superficial at first, develop at a natural if slower pace, highlighting the novel’s strength in its near total immersion into Japanese everyday life; this is especially noticeable with Marina’s interactions with some of her more troubled students, like Koji (the son of one of her co-workers) and Haruki, a former shut-in who becomes one of Marina’s primary goals to help as a teacher.
Along the way, Watrous cleverly navigates the social customs of the Japanese by having Miyoshi write letters to Marina; this allows for the cultural intricacies of Japanese social norms and mores to be more fully explored from the native’s point of view as well as forward the budding relationship between Miyoshi and Marina. Another small yet significant addition is the inclusion of Japanese words and their definitions as a substitute for chapter titles, setting the tone for the chapters.
However, one issue that I take issue with is Marina and Carolyn’s relationship and its development, or lack thereof. Though the story makes it clear that both women are struggling with personal grief, the manner in which their relationship comes into being felt frivolous; it leaves me feeling as though Carolyn was nothing more than a plot contrivance in order to bring Marina to Japan, deflating what could’ve been a emotionally satisfying development into a foregone conclusion as their relationship peters off.
While I applaud Watrous for not overstating Marina’s bisexuality, the lack of development of Marina and Carolyn as a unit fails in gaining my sympathy for either character when troubles predictably arise in their relationship.
Carolyn’s character also suffers as she too fades away once her role as Marina’s benefactor is diminished; it doesn’t help that Carolyn exhibits near emotionally abusive and heavy handed behavior as a signal of her dwindling presence. Marina is not exactly blameless either, but as a consequence of the story being told from her point of view, her reactions feel unnecessarily dramatic at times.
Nevertheless, If You Follow Me is not so much a fish out of water story as it is one woman’s attempt to pull herself up from the depths of her grief and the unknown future that lies before her. The backdrop of a country halfway across the world from her home helps to establish a stark contrast in which the story allows for Marina to grow into herself. It is an engaging read so long as the reader takes to the immersive illustration of rural Japan and its people with an open mind to the cultural differences and how they affect Marina’s thoughts and decisions.
—— IF YOU FOLLOW ME
By Malena Watrous Harper Perennial
Trade paperback, $14.99, 384 p.