Snakes and Earrings

Book review:
Snakes and Earrings – Hitomi Kaneraha (Dutton Books)
Teenage angst is the source of innumerable creative outpourings, for better or – more frequently – for worse. As a young author, Hitomi Kanehara has succeeded in that most difficult of tasks: being taken seriously.

As far as one can get from the dreary college campuses and lurid high streets frequented by British youth, Japan and its “lost generation” (young people alienated by the country’s economic boom) provoke an impassioned response from members of many a subculture. By this token, Kanehara has written a book which appeals beyond the coasts of her native Japan, and which also won the Akutagawa prize (equivalent to the Booker) in her homeland. Not bad for a 19-year-old.

Thankfully, Snakes and Earrings avoids most of the pitfalls of bad teenage writing, due in part to its use of the sparse style prevalent in much contemporary Japanese literature. The protagonist is a 17-year-old girl named Lui – a self-chosen moniker in honour of the luxury fashion brand, Louis Vuitton. We follow the Tokyo escort and body modification fanatic as she covers her dyed blonde hair with a wig to please clients and sets out for kimono-clad evenings of urban depravity. Some nights she is perfectly safe, others she is at the mercy of sadists who torture her. None of this appears to faze her particularly – she is, after all, the lovely, fine-featured face of a disaffected youth.

Kanehara first stumbles in her attempts to represent Tokyo’s tattooing and body piercing scene, an intriguing subculture worthy of an illuminating treatment. Lui seems somewhat tenuously connected with the world of body modification, as if she wandered into a tattoo parlour by accident when looking for a hair salon, discovered an attraction to the twisted young men whom she met there, and became unfathomably attached to all they stood for. She elects to get her tongue split in two like that of a snake. Admittedly an extreme choice, not for the faint-hearted or a tourist of the underworld, but her asserted motivation never quite rings true. Her interest in this entire lifestyle – which the book is based around – appears circumstantial and slightly baffling.

Lui and her peers live what should be compellingly decadent lives. As it is, all this insentience begins to runs a bit cold: there’s only so much detached sex, absurd violence and clumsy soul-searching you can cram into 118 pages without a little more substance to recommend it. Lui’s potential appeal as a numb anti-heroine is counteracted by the loose characterisation, a problem which extends to her fellow rebel youths. There is also a telling crater between the vivid depictions of her morally reprehensible behaviour and the creaky softer moments. Put simply, she’s better when she’s bad.

It may be a remarkable achievement for a 19-year-old, but Snakes and Earrings leaves many of its holes in the wrong places. The absence of character development consigns Lui to the role of an intangible, spoilt young girl with little capacity to connect with the reader. The similarity to successful contemporaries/heroes such as Ryu Murakami suggests a young writer not yet in possession of her own voice.

There is, however, something to be said for a fresh, young and decidedly female presence in an arena dominated by middle-aged men (some of whom have afforded Snakes and Earrings high praise). Contrary to many an adolescent novel, the pared-down narration makes for easy reading and a reduced cringe factor. Kanehara may not have earned her unusually elevated status, but she has written a very promising first book.

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