Malena Watrous’ If You Follow Me
by Molly Templeton
Though South Eugene grad Malena Watrous’ first novel, If You Follow Me (Harper Perennial, $14.99), treads a bit of familiar ground, a distinctive voice lifts it above similar fish-out-of-water tales. Twenty-two-year-old Marina has taken a year-long contract teaching English in Japan. The lingering grief from her father’s suicide plays a huge part in her decision to leave New York; so does her girlfriend, Carolyn, who initiated the trip but grows distant as the year progresses.
Marina is still working on the language. More pressingly, as the book opens, she’s still working on understanding the trash laws. Her gomi (trash) mistakes lead to letter after awkwardly helpful letter from her supervisor, Hiro Miyoshi, whose personality, restrained at school, slips out in his letters. Hiro, a karaoke fan, has a tendency toward lovely metaphors and understands that music allows us to say pitiful things in a way that transforms pain into beauty. “Karaoke is how I speak my truth,” he writes to Miss Marina. “Problem is, life is not karaoke booth.”
Watrous’ crisp, first-person prose meticulously sets the reader at a remove; Marina’s narration is full of questions, pauses, moments of indecision and awkardness that shift and transform over the course of the year. Language and cultural differences provide a barrier Marina repeatedly bumps into. Her slip-ups are uncomfortable, but her frustration is free of contempt; she wants to do things right, but fear makes her defensive.
There’s honesty in the way Watrous relates her character’s every thought, however ugly: Marina’s description of the overweight, formerly shut-in student across the street is thoughtlessly cruel, but she comes to understand the boy. Although she’s initially somewhat judgmental toward those who want her company primarily so they can practice speaking English, she eventually steps far enough out of herself to realize that practicing English is having a conversation — and she too has something to gain from these chats, as she looks to others for comfort, distraction, understanding and a way to deal with her grief, which is as treacherously complex as her gomi.
Shika, the small town where Watrous’ tale takes place, has the familiar complications of a community where everyone knows everyone else’s business, right down to what’s in the neighbor’s trash. If Marina is youthfully blind to Shika’s charms, Watrous is not: From the local matchmaker to the art teacher whose small son takes a liking to Marina to Mrs. Ogawa, who gardens by moonlight, the author’s secondary characters resonate with depths that gradually reveal themselves as Marina begins to realize that everyone, from a quiet Korean student to a cocky teen with a thing for self-tanner, has a pocket of grief of their own. Watrous pulls off this basic, inevitable lesson with grace and clarity. Marina doesn’t save the day, doesn’t teach everyone a valuable lesson; she just wakes up from, and to, grief, and the part it plays in everyone’s story.
Malena Watrous reads from If You Follow Me at 5 pm Saturday, March 27, at Tsunami Books.