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My Falling Down House by Jayne Joso - a Review from New Welsh Review

REVIEW by Ashley Owen

NWR Issue r12

My Falling Down House

by Jayne Joso

My Falling Down House by Jayne Joso

My Falling Down House is the critically acclaimed third novel from writer and artist Jayne Joso. Her first to be set in Japan, it draws as extensively on her time living there and on her knowledge of Japanese culture as it does on the keen insight into the inner lives of humans that all her novels demonstrate. This latest novel also continues to ask questions posed in her previous work: what is like to inhabit a particular space, and what happens when that space is irrevocably altered? My Falling Down House is the story of a man removed from his context, cut off from culture and society, and left to find a new place for himself. Here, Joso takes a fascinating look at how the spaces we inhabit shape us.

After losing his job, his girlfriend, and subsequently the home he shared with her, Takeo Tanaka is adrift. Shoeless, penniless, and carrying his meagre possessions in a cardboard box, Takeo takes refuge in a dilapidated wood and paper house he stumbled into once while drunk. Unable to interact with anyone outside lest he be forced to leave the shelter he is, in essence, stealing, he has only a cat, a cello and his own thoughts for company. Thus cut off from everything familiar, Takeo begins a slow transition from the successful salaryman he has been into whatever the house, and isolation, will make of him.

Joso’s harrowing portrayal of a man losing himself bit by bit is perhaps an illustration of what Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis from man to insect would have looked like, had the changes taken place over long months instead of overnight. The novel is divided into four sections that chronicle Takeo’s year in the house through the changing seasons. In summer’s sweltering heat, Takeo contemplates the series of small changes that have brought him here: from living with Yumi, to sleeping in a box under his desk at the office, to having no office and no Yumi, and no place to live but his crumbling residence. His life, he reasons, has become like a ball of sticky rice – slippery, gathering to it more and more mess as it falls. ‘A man, when he falls, first becomes a box man, and next a ball of sticky rice. It’s not a good way for things to go.’

As summer progresses, Takeo becomes nocturnal, creeping animal-like around the house at night to avoid being seen. He finds a bag of old rice that saves him from complete starvation, but still loses his hair to malnourishment, his bald held making him resemble simultaneously a baby and an old man. As his sense of time becomes more fluid, so does his sense of gender. The only clothing he can find are old kimonos stored in an upstairs closet; upon finding them, he put one on, practising what it might be like to move and feel as a woman. It is the discovery of a room full of cardboard boxes, however, that gives Takeo a focus in his downward spiral. He resolves to build a new house of boxes – a house within a house, far superior to the box dwelling under his desk, decorated in an elaborate code system of his own creation.

As autumn and winter progress, monsoons, cold weather, malnourishment, and isolation steadily take their toll. Takeo’s narration becomes progressively unreliable. His inner monologue – delivered in the same thoughtful, reasonable tone throughout – betrays how far he is moving from his previous reality. Constantly plagued by feelings of guilt for taking up space that he does not have a right to, Takeo begins to hear sounds and voices, to see a figure that he believes is a shapeshifter – come to haunt or help, he is not sure. Takeo is dying by inches, starving and freezing, and when mysterious gifts of food and supplies start appearing, it isn’t immediately certain if they are left by the shapeshifter or by a person, or if they are even real.

My Falling Down House is a compelling, and oftentimes frightening, examination of the fragility of a created reality. Joso systematically strips back everything that might give a person a sense of identity: home, family, career, companionship. A society with whom one shares a culture. By the end of his journey, Takeo could no more return himself to the context of businessman-with-smart-apartment than Gregor Samsa could continue with being a clerk.

If Takeo is a vehicle for examining what a person becomes when cut off from everything stable and familiar, then Shizuka, who appears at the novel’s beginning and end, represents the difficulty of navigating between conflicting self-images when too many defining factors are vying for dominance. A Korean woman socialised by her father to act and think as a native Japanese woman when not at home, Shizuka (who is called Chung Ae by her Korean family) struggles to find a space in which she may integrate two wholly separate selves.

My Falling Down House is a smart, complex narrative that poses difficult questions, though, wisely, it does not seek to pose any answers. Instead, it offers new perspectives. It sets the reader wondering: what boxes do I inhabit? How many names do I call myself? Who would I be, if I were not exactly where I am? Like all the best questions, these are well worth the contemplation, even if an answer is impossible.

Ashley Owen recently submitted her PhD in Creative Writing to Aberystwyth University. She works in Waterstones Aberystwyth.

Buy this book at gwales.com


previous review: Three Symphonies
next review: What It’s Like to Be Alive: Selected Poems


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