As green as the kappa’s love for cucumbers
This is one of those kinds of books. The kind where you find yourself standing in front of the elevator in the morning, balancing the pain of being a few minutes late for work and the pleasure of getting just a few more pages in before you start your day, and the book always wins. This is, in short, a good book.
I must confess that I am not entirely an unbiased reviewer, Oh, I have never met author Hiromi Goto nor even heard of her before I cracked the pages of “The Kappa Child,” but there is one thing. I do love kappa. I have a sizable kappa collection that takes up several shelves, and I have read many, many books on/about kappa from Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Kappa to Kunio Yanagita’s The Legends of Tono to the children’s environmental book The Last Kappa of Old Japan. While this would seem to make me predisposed to “Kappa Child,” it is actually the opposite. I have a Master’s Degree in Japanese folklore, and I tend to be a very strict critic of those who don’t deal with my favorite beasties correctly.
Hiromi Goto obviously likes kappa too, as seen by her children’s novel The Water Of Possibility (In the Same Boat). Fortunately, Goto deals with the creatures in a way of respect and tradition for the source material, and accurate in every way. But where “The Water of Possibility” combined Japanese folklore with a tiny Canadian village in an innocent childish way, “The Kappa Child” is a grown up book dealing with adult themes of sex, brutality and isolation, as well as love and redemption. I found this particularly suiting for a creature who is both a monster and a friend, a trickster and a helper. Never before have I seen the multi-faceted aspects of kappa so perfectly dealt with.
The book very much falls into the genre of Magical Realism, but the magic here is the magic found in a small seed that has the ability to metamorphis from a hard brown stone to a lush green life-giving plant. It is a moving book about transformation, about human potential and the ability of those around us to either stunt or encourage that potential.
The story is complicated, telling the trials of a Japanese family who immigrated to Canada, with the father intent on being the first person to grow Japanese rice from the hard dust-bowl. Through force of will he thinks he can defy nature and bring forth wet life from the dry clay, and is more than willing to beat down anyone that challenges him or defies him. His three daughters live in fear of their father, growing up in the prairies to become dysfunctional adults, each shaped in their own way by their upbringing.
As adults, they gather together only for holidays, resenting their parents and the forced ritual of homecoming. But this year for the first time something is different. One of the daughters is coming home secretly pregnant, although she has no explanation for her condition. All that she knows is there was a strange encounter one night with someone that was small and green, and that four months later a small voice speaks to her from inside her womb, craving Japanese cucumbers and the water that is life. She does not know if she is going mad, or if through some circumstances she is truly pregnant with a kappa child.
“Kappa Child” is filled with all sorts of characters the kinds of which you could only find in books. The four sisters, who found their Japanese names unpronounceable, gave themselves nicknames based on their zodiac signs. The oldest sister, Slither (Snake), is obsessed with physical beauty and escaped the earliest from the prairie hell. The second daughter and main character remains nameless, but she is a strange recluse who dresses exclusively in pajamas and hides her “pumpkin toothed smile” from the world, working a job collecting stray shopping carts in her milk truck until the one magical night changes her. The other sisters, PG (Pig Girl, named for the sign of the Boar) whose lazy eye can see hidden things and Mice (for the Mouse sign) who rarely speaks except to imitate a dog.
The story of this family moves back from the present to the past, touching on the protagonists magical pregnancy and the circumstances that created the odd family. If there are any complaints to be made about “The Kappa Child,” it is that Goto’s writing style can be somewhat hard to get into. She favors staccato sentences, and places her periods where she wants them and not where grammar dictates. Also, there is un-translated Japanese dialog here, which I had no problem with as a Japanese speaker but might be distracting to other readers who want to know what the mother is saying.
It is hard to talk too much about the plot without spoiling the many magical moments in “The Kappa Child,” but it can be said that there are UFO abductions, naked sumo matches under the last lunar eclipse of the millennium, and love found where it is least expected. The end of the book took me by surprise, but on reflection could not have ended any other way.
All of those scenes are what really hooked me with “The Kappa Child.” There were more than a few that were so magical, so beautifully written that I found myself walking down the street grinning like an idiot while reading, oblivious to everything else. Goto pulled me into her world, and it was a place that I liked being in.
One a final note, “The Kappa Child” has one of the most brilliant covers I can remember seeing. Cover designer Duncan Campbell has hidden his own piece of magic on the cover, and just like the magic in “The Kappa Child” it is up to you to find it.