A post on about romance in books reminded me that I had been meaning to write this At the End of the Matinee review for a while! Keiichiro Hirano’s latest book to be published in English, with translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter, is out now from Amazon Crossing. Having loved A Man so much, I was waiting for this to appear and it did not disappoint.
When classical guitarist Satoshi Makino and journalist Yoko Komine are introduced over dinner with friends after one of his concerts, their in-depth conversation sparks a connection. In a different novel, or with characters of different ages, that might have begun an intense romance, but both have responsibilities and other calls on their time. Both are glancing at their watches while wondering if they can stretch the evening out a little longer and deciding that they can, but eventually they have to call it a night and leave… separately.
She has to go away for work to Iraq, where she is part of a tight-knit team, reporting for a European news service. With a Croatian father and Japanese mother, having grown up in Switzerland, Yoko has always had questions about where she belongs, as well as questions about the ending of her parents’ marriage. Makino has been a guitarist since childhood, when he was mentored by Seiichi Sofue and tipped for greatness from the start. He has always seemed to enjoy success and acclaim, but now has reached something that could be a professional crossroads or even a peak and what follows is uncertain to him. He needs to make changes and how best to do that is never far from his thoughts.
I’ve reached that age. The realization hit him as he watched the Polish youth greet another guitarist. Loneliness, when it came down to it, was the awareness of your utter lack of influence in the world – knowing that you could and would have zero influence on either your contemporaries or on future generations. It was the conviction that you could search all you liked and never find any indication that you had influenced the growth of another artist.
When they meet, neither is free to spend the time together to allow something to develop. As well as work intruding, Yoko is also engaged to an American, Richard, as her friend Korenaga mentions to Makino within minutes of introducing them, although there is an air of Yoko having settled. Of course, this is the modern age and two interested people in different cities, countries and continents no longer have to sit around waiting for letters to arrive. Their initial conversation continues over email and video calls, with both over-analysing the gaps between messages furiously. Neither is young and reckless but eventually they manage to rearrange schedules to allow themselves a couple of days in the same place. There is an air of caution for both of them and all these communication methods still do not make things easier, as they misread signs and make inexact assumptions. Although they communicate a lot, they cannot share their concerns, either out of a fear of intimacy or of spoiling the other one’s image of them. There is the question of whether they have the nerve to turn their lives upside-down over a small number of meetings and conversations in restaurants, or whether they should do, even if they want to.
Both Yoko and Makino are described as attractive and both are talented, committed, highly-educated people, who have been rewarded for their high performance, in possession of slightly alpha-ish personalities. There could be an air of beautiful people having everything fall into their laps but Keiichiro Hirano disarms that in a prologue similar to the one in A Man, which asserts that they are based on people the writer knows, and by giving us a view into their thoughts and insecurities. The book carefully considers all the factors that keep the two from fully throwing themselves into their romance and they are very of our time. After an incident at work, Yoko is left with PTSD and the way she begins to doubt her own thoughts and version of reality is sympathetic. Her response to the financial crisis of 2007-08 puts her out of step with her and Richard’s New York crowd and ultimately Richard himself. Yoko’s involvement with an Iraqi colleague, Jalila, brings the European refugee crisis out of the headlines and into Yoko’s life.
By contrast, Makino’s difficulties are more professional, but the detail of a creative individual’s struggles to anticipate what his next steps should be, plus the machinations between his management and the record company and the trials of internal and industry politics is enlightening. I thought the conflict between the music side and the business side of the music business is captured particularly well, especially in terms of what that can mean for someone lower down the food chain like Makino’s friend, Takechi. Having not listened to enough classical guitar before, I have now compiled a playlist of every piece they play in the book! Here is the theme song from Yoko’s father’s film ‘Coins of Happiness.’
Again, as with A Man, I loved the careful consideration of questions that feel relevant to life now – who are you if the inside you does not feel like it matches up to the you the world feels it knows? How can you reboot and recover once that first impetus of youth to succeed at something seems to be winding down and then go on to build a second act you can be comfortable with? What does success look like and is Richard’s ‘dog eat dog’ or Yoko’s humanitarianism closer to it? We put forward different faces at work, at home and when trying to impress a new love interest, so how do we reconcile those personas? Do we end up with the someone we want or the someone who is there – here I was reminded of the Willie Nelson quote that ‘99% of the world’s lovers are not with their first choice. That’s what makes the jukebox play’ – and all this in a world of terrorism, financial shocks and natural disasters in which the problems of two people still ‘don’t amount to a hill of beans.’
On paper then, our star-crossed pair have many things going for them, and the reader will find it hard not to root for them through all the twists and turns. No spoilers! But there is a moment where not fate but another person takes a hand to stick an industrial-sized spanner into the works that may make you gasp (as it did me!) or howl at the duplicity and treachery. The cleverness of the book is that life goes on from this shocking twist, things settle down into new patterns, the water flows into new channels and old possibilities are left to drift away, if occasionally wondered about. There is little in the way of melodrama, raised voices, denunciations. There are strong emotions, often hidden, passions buried deep in consideration of others or a bid for self-protection, that all must be resolved at some point. In that, I think it is a very – dare I say it – mature representation of love and life in the 21st century.
People think that only the future can be changed, but in fact, the future is continually changing the past. The past can and does change. It’s exquisitely sensitive and delicately balanced.
There are moments where new information comes to light that alters perceptions of a whole history, as when Makino reminds his mentor of some advice he had given him, or speaks with Korenaga about Yoko’s PTSD. Yoko reassesses her parents’ relationship and makes a discovery about herself when talking to Jalila about survivor’s guilt. This is a romance where the two protagonists are trying to keep one foot on the bottom of the pool, fearful of risking it all in deeper waters. Something is sparked but almost extinguished, so much so that the possibility of nourishing it into flame again may forever be remote. It is a story of missed chances, miscommunication and mistaken perceptions, but still one that is full of hope. I loved it as much as I did A Man and cannot wait to read more by Keiichiro Hirano.