A Sign in the Stars

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A Sign in the Stars
Author: Tomoka Shibasaki
Specifications: ISBN  978-4163274805
165 pages
13.9 x 18.5 cm / 5.5 x 7.4 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Bungeishunju Ltd.
Tokyo, 2008
Buy now: amazon.co.jp


An otherwise mundane narrative lacking in any extraordinary incident sparkles everywhere with the idiosyncratic perspectives author Tomoka Shibasaki brings to the events. It is a work that has much in common with her Akutagawa Prize-winning Haru no niwa (Spring Garden). Shibasaki appears to have asked herself whether it’s possible to convey to others things one cannot even see—and further, to give such things a place of belonging in a fictional narrative—and demonstrates with her incomparable eye for detail that it most certainly is.

Narrator Kae Nomura, 29, works in the office of a mid-sized equipment installation company in Osaka. She lives alone in her own apartment but visits her parents frequently and spends many a weekend night at her boyfriend Asahi’s home. With the recent arrival of a cost-cutting VP from the parent company, it is clear that business is declining, but she is not concerned about impending bankruptcy or losing her job. Her relationship with her boyfriend is on an even keel. But unsure whether she is happy or not, she feels as if suspended in limbo, and this has led her to begin observing those around her with assiduous scrutiny. The story recounts her life over a period of roughly three months from the beginning of January to the beginning of spring.

On January 2, her 90-year-old paternal grandfather living in a nursing home chokes on some food and dies. Not as close to relatives on her father’s side of the family as she is to her mother’s, Kae has visited the nursing home no more than once or twice a year. The last time she saw her grandfather, he had failed to recognize her due to advancing dementia. He insisted he could see the island of Sakurajima—in Kyushu’s Kagoshima Prefecture where he was born and raised—outside the window and urged Kae to enjoy the view, too. Reflecting on that visit now, Kae believes her grandfather actually did see the island in that moment.

Kae is told that, according to Buddhist beliefs, even after a corpse has been cremated, the person’s soul continues to wander between this world and the next for 49 days before finally becoming a Buddha. Despite not being very close to her grandfather when he was alive, she now finds herself thinking of his invisible presence all the time.

The story goes on to depict other events that capture Kae’s attention amid the mundane flow of her daily existence. There is the self-described “penniless student” named Katsuo who comes to Asahi’s house as the acquaintance of an acquaintance and begins spending large amounts of time there, mooching meals, and becoming friends with Asahi and Kae. He says he sees UFOs, and urges Kae to prepare for an alien invasion. Then one day he disappears, leaving behind a brief note and unpaid debts. There is also the fortuneteller she is invited to visit by a woman she has been friends with since they became classmates in seventh grade. There is the “healing salon” she decides to try out on the recommendation of a colleague at work, who tells her every ache in her body will blissfully disappear. There is the sight of players bowing their heads in prayer, presumably to God, before an international soccer match that Asahi happens to be watching.

Near the end, Kae has an intense dream as she is waking up one morning. As Katsu had predicted, aliens have invaded the earth, and pale, flat-faced creatures are being interviewed on every television channel. Sensing a presence outside the door of her apartment, she looks through the peephole to see an alien there as well. She knows it was a dream, but it also seemed too real to disregard. Had there actually been no alien invasion? Or had aliens indeed come, but then made it look like nothing had changed? Can she trust her eyes to be a reliable guide to what is real? Shibasaki has a knack for finding philosophical “portals” in the seemingly ordinary and uneventful lives of her heroines. The work casts a spell that leaves one with a slightly altered view of the world when the last page is turned.