Book Review: Chorus of Mushrooms

Each academic year, the university I work at chooses a "book of the year", a work of contemporary Canadian fiction. All (ok, some) students, faculty and staff read it for class assignments or funnies - and then the author visits and takes part in events, readings, contests and interviews etc. It's usually quite a good event and I've always enjoyed seeing and hearing the author talk about their book.

I've been around for the past 4 Books of the Year: Indian Horse, The Golden Mean, The Bone Cage, and The Cat's Table. I've also read a number of past Books of the Year before I became employed at the university: The Cellist of Sarajevo, Life of Pi, and Icefields, though there are many more I haven't read as the Book of the Year has been running since 1998.

After the profound experience that was my read of Indian Horse, I decided to read a couple vintage books of the year. So far, that was a mediocre decision.

Book of the Year 2001

Chorus of Mushrooms
By Hiromi Goto
221 pages

Mostly I chose this novel because it was set in Alberta and it didn't sound boring or depressing or romancey. It actually sounded interesting. It allegedly "explores the collision of cultures within a family between three generations of Japanese Canadian women" (back cover). That's true. The three female characters are the grandmother (Obachan), the mother, and the daughter, although the story is only ever told from either the grandmother or daughter's point of view. It's told through many interwoven stories that flip back and forth, which sounds cool but it actually annoying because not only does the point of view change, but the time period changes as well. Sometimes I wasn't sure whose story it was or how old they were. I enjoyed the Obachan character and wanted to learn more about her story, but every time I got into that narrative, the story changed.
"You switch around in time a lot," you say, a bowl of coffee resting in your palms. "I get all mixed up. I don't know what order things really happened"
"There isn't a time line. It's not a linear equation. You start in the middle and unfold outward from there. It's not a flat surface that you walk back and forth on. It's like being inside a ball that isn't exactly a ball, but is really made up of thousands and thousands of small panels. And on each panel there is a mirror; but each mirror reflects something different around or down or sideways, you can see something new, something old, or something you've forgotten."
 "Wow," you say. "Wow, that sounds like some mind bend. Some people might call it madness."
"Yeah I guess. But some might call it magic." (p. 132)  
Good idea, but, um, well, I didn't think it was quite magic. You know what else was annoying? Sometimes Obachan would speak Japanese, which fit with the story quite well, but obviously I couldn't understand it. Consequently, I felt I was losing something every so often. I think this was done purposely and a glossary or footnotes would've defeated the purpose, but still, those translation additions would've been appreciated.

I enjoyed the daughter character too, and the local Alberta references. The mother character did fall flat, although in the end it is revealed why she is how she is. Also it was typeset in a font I had a hard time reading. And there was too much unnecessary sex. Necessary sex I'm ok with; unnecessary sex is just...uncomfortable.

I get the point though. It was interesting to read about the experiences of a Japanese Canadian family living in rural Alberta. That was the poignant part, and a bit of an eye opener. This is where the book excelled, and as a reader I enjoyed the cultural parts of the book.

A person with much deeper thinking ability would probably enjoy this book more than I did (clearly I need to take a university English class to brush up on my ability to spot symbolism). It was a mediocre surface read - it certainly was no Indian Horse. I'm not quite sure how it ended up being chosen as a book of the year, but I learned a bit about Japanese Canadian culture so in the end it was worth a read, but I wouldn't highly recommend it. It reminded me about why I generally stay away from general fiction.