Twinkle Twinkle by Kaori Ekuni is a short novel (just 170 pages), which follows the story of Shoko and Mutsuki. When we meet them, they are only a short time into their marriage of convenience. Shoko suffers from depression and is an alcoholic, Mitsuki is gay and has been in a relationship with his boyfriend Kon for a long time. Their respective in-laws only know about the “defect” of their own child and are ecstatic that they got their children married.
The novel is told alternately from Shoko’s and Mutsuki’s perspective, a style which worked very well for me, blending and crashing both their perspectives and voices to tell their story. It’s a quirky and somewhat strange book, but the topics at the heart of it are important and dark.
First of all, there is the matter of their “defects”; Shoko’s mental illness and alcoholism are very serious problems, Mustsuki’s sexuality should not be one at all. Because of that they are both not considered ideal marriage partners, but their parents’ are desperate to see them married. Bowing to the constant pressure of their parents and Japanese society is how they end up married to each other.
I think this novel was originally written in the 90s and I have no idea whether things have now changed, but I had no idea the pressure to get married and have children in Japan was this great. There seems to be no place outside traditional gender roles and both characters are constantly told that everything will be alright once they are married and then once they have children. Shoko is completely ignored when she attempts to get help, because apparently marriage will magically fix it all.
They do seem to find a bit of comfort and understanding in each other. But with Mutsuki continuing, and Shoko insisting he continue, his relationship with Kon, they end up in a somewhat unconventional love-triangle. Although there is a suggestion that they find a solution that works for them all in the end, I have to say I am a bit unconvinced. It’s no small thing to be living with an alcoholic depressive, who has violent mood swings, and to be bound to someone who loves another person. Supposedly, the problems and moments of tension will be resolved with their solution, but throughout the story and over the couple of months of their marriage I could not really see how Shoko was more stable or drank less. And Mutsuki was mostly incredibly patient and understanding all the time.
This was the biggest problem for me, the characters. The secondary characters were very flat, especially the parents, who kept repeating the traditional, conservative tirade and not much else, they might as well have been walking posters. And Mutsuki, I simply don’t think that anyone can have his patience and tolerance all the time, and so I could seldom believe in him as a person. Shoko is the one character who stood out to me. In the beginning, I was afraid she would be another caricature of the mad woman, but slowly she became more three-dimensional: Trying to get professional help, enjoying being on her own, saying mean things and regretting them.
I did enjoy reading Twinkle Twinkle for its quirkiness, the sarcastic bright cover, its representation of mental illness, and the way it calls attention to gender roles in Japanese society. I read this novel as part of Tony’s January in Japan challenge. It seems that another Ekuni novel, God’s Boat, has been translated into English recently. I know I’ll want to give it a try.
Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!