Tales of Tokyo
Full disclosure: Alan Rose and I are friends, and over the years I have enjoyed every bit of his writing. His first novel, the plot-driven ghost story The Legacy of Emily Hargraves, may differ in tone and content from Tales of Tokyo, but the underlying themes aren’t so different. Rose excels at writing about love, passion, the search for answers, and the search for self – and these are recurring themes in both of his books. In Tales of Tokyo, there are even a few ghost stories thrown in for good measure.
The plot follows the lives of four people in their twenties—Americans Chris, Jason, and Sally and Australian Delia—who relocate to Japan to teach English for a year in search of a unique identity. There is Jason’s spiritual quest; Chris’s refusal to give up on the relationship he left in Seattle; Sally’s struggle to find out who she really is instead of telling lies about herself; and Delia’s determination to battle the sexism she encounters at the school and in Japanese society. (Delia accomplishes this through sex, as she spends much of the novel chasing down eligible bedmates.)
Several parallel plots run through the novel, but none drag down the pace. Drawing all of the characters together is the whisper of a scandal at the school that even the most candid of the American staff refuse to discuss—but Chris and Delia can’t help investigating. The sleuthing that ensues culminates in several “gotcha!” moments for the reader—another fun aspect of the book.
Set in 1981 and 1982, there is more than a hint of autobiography here, as Rose spent time as an ESL teacher in Japan in the early 1980s. While more than twenty-five years have passed since that time, he recreates the scene convincingly. Through the American characters—both those in Japan and the friends they’ve left back home—we’re brought back to the Reagan years, and the author, no pun intended, doesn’t write with rose-colored glasses. We’re reminded of the increasingly large gap between the haves and have-nots, and the very first echoes of what will develop into the AIDS epidemic.
Similar to The Legacy of Emily Hargraves, Rose writes candidly about sex—and very well, I might add—and there is quite a lot of sex, gay and straight, in the book. Though it’s not pornographic for the most part, sex is a central issue for several of the main characters. Chris, a true romantic, tangles with lovers who are able to separate sex from relationships while he isn’t. Delia is motivated solely by her hormones. Sally spends a lot of time trying to lose her virginity, as well as seduce Chris, despite the fact that he is openly gay. Only Jason doesn’t focus on sex as the other characters do, although several of them wouldn’t mind sleeping with him.
The only part of the book that moves a bit slowly is a month-long journey the four friends take through some of the more remote areas of Japan. I tend to think of the wilderness as a place to go through between cities, but the nature lover may appreciate that aspect of the book. At roughly 600 pages, Tales of Tokyo is not a short novel, but it is a relatively quick and thoroughly compelling read that convinces you to really care about the characters and wonder what will happen to them. Ultimately, when the book ends, you are left wanting more.