Sayonara Bar Paperback – Feb 12 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
British author Barker's piquant debut chronicles the life of Mary, a young Englishwoman working as a hostess at the Sayonara Bar in Osaka, Japan. Though not a prostitute, Mary is paid an hourly wage to flirt and converse with the bar's customers, primarily middle-aged Japanese businessmen. Her colleagues include Katya, a Ukrainian hostess, and Watanabe, the Sayonara's cook, who keeps a watchful eye over Mary and believes that he's an "intermediary between the third and fourth dimension." Barker precisely draws her characters, emphasizing their innermost thoughts and desires. Mr. Sato, a widower, has vivid dreams about his deceased wife even as he's attracted to Mariko, a bar hostess who claims to be conversing with his ghostly wife. As the tension builds among the characters, Yuji, Mary's boyfriend, is caught stealing from his boss. An enigmatic yet riveting climax brings this highly unusual view of Japanese society to a fitting close. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
“With dry humour and crisp observation, Barker conveys the inner chaos masked by the external regimens of a society where intimacy is contrived, and loyalty is strained. Japan has not, for a long time, been made to seem so accessible, or so remote.”
“Sayonara Bar is a showpiece of breathtaking new talent.”
–Scottish Daily Record
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Before reading the actual book, the usual dread overtook me: another book by a former English teacher who spent perhaps two or three years in Japan. Another expert. Probably can't order from an izakaya menu. Would break out in hives at the ward office when filling out a simple form.
Then I read the book. It is no doubt heavily autobiographical: English woman goes to Japan planning to make some cash and then travel, but ends up working as an "economy geisha" and staying longer than she planned. What follows, I feared, would no doubt be snide commentary about Japanese, about the mizu shobai economy of such bars, and a blue-eyed expat's life in seedy Japan. In the process, however, the protagonist Mary comes into something darker and deeper than she bargained on-and the reader gets something both darker and deeper, too. Barker has a fluid style and writes sentences reminiscent of Haruki Murakami, observations like Natsuo Kirino.
The novel features several outstanding characters. While working as a hostess, Mary becomes involved with the bar mama's son, Yuji, who is connected to the Yakuza. And to which he professes the greatest loyalty. The introverted cook Watanabe observes all from an addled, manga-obsessed fantasy world. He believes he can perceive what others cannot. A third character, Sato the Salaryman, is an overworked lonely drone who finds solace in the smoke-filled bar, the only place he can forget his dead wife.
Barker's descriptions are spot on, the story a snapshot of a certain milieu but one that ultimately transcends it.
The book itself is fascinating. Aside from an interesting story with original characters, I found reading it to be very nostalgic. As someone who lived in Osaka, where the story takes place, it was wonderful to be re-introduced to all the areas I hung out and enjoyed. If you've never been, Ms. Barker's evocative imagery is a great introduction to the area and the people who live there.
Unfortunately, the book rather falls apart in the end. We never find out what happens to our three main characters, whether they come out of the trials they go through all right. I think the author was trying to be philosophical, but instead the ending was just confusing and unsatisfying.
The rest of the book is great, however, with interesting characters, exciting adventures and thought-provoking monologues. Whether you like the ending or not, its definitely worth reading.
What marks the novel, however, is its use of magical realism. One of the bar employees is a young man who is a cook there, and who had a nervous breakdown while in college (this is not explicitly stated). He believes he has evolved into a human being of higher consciousness, and in fact some of the things he learns about other people can only be explained as magical. However, for the most part, he can be considered a realistic character, and his soaring delusions are voiced in exceptional prose. The salaryman also has something of a mental breakdown, but I was confused by the boundaries between his delusions, reality, and the magical.
Sayonara Bar is an original work of fiction which mostly succeeds and is an interesting read. It proceeds at a measured pace until the plot speeds up at the end in a not altogether satisfying way. I was particularly bothered by the role of Katya, who is portrayed as an unfeeling egoist throughout the novel, but at the end proves to be a devoted friend and lover.