Akira Yoshimura’s novel Shipwrecks is, in my opinion, falsely advertised by its cover blurb, as well as the description on the back. Check out that intriguing blurb; it promises thrills, murder, and a wild setting. The description on the back cover calls it “a stunningly powerful Gothic tale of the mysteries and horrors of fate.” I suppose the murder technically is there, but it might as well not be. The horror is certainly minimal. Perhaps I have a different opinion of Gothic literature than whoever wrote the blurb, but I would not consider this Gothic save for in the broadest possible application of the term. When I think of Gothic literature, I think of Edgar Allan Poe. I think of The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Gothic works are dark, lurid, and over-the-top. Shipwrecks… not so much.
The story centers on a young boy named Isaku, who has become the male head of his household after his father sold himself into indentured servitude to keep the family from starvation. Isaku and his family live in a remote, tightly-knit village on the coast of Japan. The people are barely above subsistence living; their only income is fish and salt from the sea. Most of the novel is about Isaku struggling to take on the duties of an adult man at only nine years old. Years pass over the course of the plot, as the reader follows Isaku’s progress as a fisherman, salt distiller, and provider for his family.
You may be thinking to yourself at this point that while that sounds interesting, it’s hardly thrilling or Gothic. This inference is positively correct. Yoshimura has a notable talent for painting lush, gorgeous scenery — I had vivid mental images of the flowers spreading on the mountains during springtime in the village. He also excels at showing character development and emotional struggle, without verging into melodrama, which is not always an easy task when writing coming-of-age tales. Yoshimura writes of the village life with ease, describing the daily life of the characters as the seasons and years progress. Isaku (and the reader, by proxy) learns that his village, consistently teetering on the brink of starvation, not only prays for ships to founder on their coast, but actively encourages them to do so with the nightly fires under their salt cauldrons on the beach.
When ships’ crews see the fires on stormy nights, they steer for the supposed safety of the coast, not realizing that a rocky reef lies just beneath the surface of the waves. The ships then run aground, giving the villagers the chance to plunder the cargo. As a matter of self-preservation, they dispatch with the crew. Survivors would only cause trouble for them if given the chance to report the villagers’ activities to the authorities. Such a shipwreck is considered a sacred event, as the food and supplies on board give the villagers a reprieve from their hardships. The villagers pray every winter for a shipwreck, though years often pass before the sea provides for them. One winter night, the long-coveted shipwreck comes. Isaku and the other villagers each do their part; some act as lookouts, some ferry the cargo from the ship up to the village, some dispose of the crew, and finally some dismantle the ship completely. This is (obviously) when the murder occurs, but it is only alluded to and imagined briefly by Isaku. Yoshimura does not show the reader anything directly. I personally have no problem with an author writing around gory scenes, but this was the first serious time my qualms about the description of this novel as Gothic surfaced.
There is much celebration after the bounty from the shipwreck is divided amongst the villagers, and they give thanks for being delivered from their hunger and poverty, even if only temporarily. Isaku’s mother is insistent that they go about life as usual, and so before long Isaku is back on the water, teaching his brother how to fish. The rest of the village soon follows suit, and life settles into its normal patterns. It feels almost like a circular read; Yoshimura uses the same words and phrases to describe scenes through each cycle of the seasons. There is repeated description of octopi being caught, then strung up to dry outside the houses. Saury are caught, skewered, and grilled. Salt is distilled, divided, and sold. There is not much action, save for Isaku’s continuing journey toward being a young man. There is some fear and excitement when the villagers hear rumors that the shipping company is searching for the missing ship, but nothing comes of it and their tensions ease.
The following winter, another ship drifts into their bay. The villagers are initially excited to be blessed with another shipwreck so soon, but this ship is nothing like the first. There is no cargo, only bodies clad entirely in bright red garments. Modern readers will likely pick up immediately on the signs of danger, but the uneducated villagers of medieval Japan have no notion of to what they are exposing themselves. They salvage what they can from the ship, including the red clothing on the corpses. The horrifying consequences of their raiding rapidly begin to unfold. This cruel twist of fate is moderately Gothic, though again, Yoshimura declines to go down the darkest paths.
Shipwrecks is not a novel of intrigue or violence. The Gothic tones are very muted. It is a novel that portrays the probable reality of a fishing village in that time, and all that life on the sea coast entails, be it morally questionable or no. It is well-written, though several parts are repetitive to the point of feeling déjà vu. Yoshimura’s talents with imagery and character development are admirable, though not quite enough to sway me from feeling mildly let down by this book, despite not disliking it in the least. It probably does not have a permanent place on my bookshelf. The best I can say for this book is that it’s a quick read, and nudges the reader to consider both the morality of survival as well as whether karma shapes our destinies, or if fate has a fickle hand that none can overcome.
Not sure what I’ll read next, but it really needs to be something less tragic than my last few choices.
That way, I can get back to what I love: happy reading!