Spring Garden, by Tomoka Shibasaki

For all the physical space that suburbia occupies — housing over thirty million Britons at the last count — it seems to take up very little room in our collective imagination. Surprisingly, neat little rows of semidetached houses and commuter rail lines tend not to inspire artists and musicians, poets and novelists, in the same way that a shiny metropolis, or a good deserted hill might. There are, of course, a few artists of various stripes who brave the suburbs. David Lynch is known for plumbing the depths of the sheer menacing surrealism that lurks behind picket fences, but for my money, it’s another David, David Byrne, who sums up that curious sense of duality, that your neighbours live on the other side of a brick wall, but a world away. Tomoka Shibasaki’s new novel Spring Garden sees her joining this small group of authors who make their home in suburbia.

Taro is one of the few remaining inhabitants of an apartment block scheduled to be torn down. He perhaps resembles one of Murakami’s vague male protagonists: recently divorced, his closest friend outside of work seems to be a pestle and mortar used in his father’s funeral rites. Taro finds himself drawn to Nishi, a woman living in his apartment block, who has an obsession with the sky-blue house on the other side of their block. The house has a secret history, though an undramatic, domestic one, detailed in a decades-old photo book ‘Spring Garden’. It’s this book that brings Nishi to the apartments — if she couldn’t live in the sky-blue house, then she could at least live somewhere overlooking it.

Spring Garden, by Tomoka Shibasaki

Spring Garden, the first novel by Shibasaki to be published in English, is written in a transparent and capacious prose that manages to circumscribe all of the petty strangenesses of suburban life — the boredom and alienation and curious menace. For all its deracinated newness, Spring Garden’s suburb is one with a past that remains barely hidden — not just in photo books, but under tarmac and under feet.

Every day, [Taro] walked over culverts with rivers running inside them. There were water pipes and gas pipes underground too, and maybe unexploded bombs, for all he knew. […] If there were unexploded bombs still underground, then there must also be bits of the houses that were burnt down then, items of their furniture. Before that, this area had been fields and woods, and the leaves and fruits and berries that fell every year, as well as the little animals, would also have formed layers over time, sinking down deeper under the ground.

And now Taro was walking on top of it all.

There is a kind of strange redemption in this vertiginous tumble down through centuries worth of soil — it’s the suburb’s more recent past, captured in Nishi’s photo book, that brings Taro out of a life spent travelling to and from work, speaking to nobody. Spring Garden promises a far richer, far more meaningful world, if only we allow ourselves to see it.

Tomoka Shibasaki, trans. Polly Barton, Spring Garden, Pushkin Press (London: 2017)

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