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Financial Times: "Tokyo Fiancée is a light, lovely little romance, winningly told and entertaining."

Date: Feb 9 2009

Tokyo Fiancée
Review by Lionel Shriver

“The worst accidents in life are accidents of language.” While anyone who has just been run over by a bus might beg to differ, Amélie Nothomb illustrates this authorial sentiment with a deft, droll touch.

Although the novella is categorised as fiction, the young narrator of Tokyo Fiancée is also named Amélie, suggesting a hefty element of memoir. A Belgian teaching French in Tokyo, Amélie takes on a single student who soon doubles as her boyfriend. Wealthy, naive, and terribly sweet, Rinri is the classic bundle of contradictions of a contemporary Japanese youth. He subjects Amélie to a torturous multi-course Japanese dinner with his friends, through which she is obliged to carry the whole conversational ball, but left to his own devices, he prefers spaghetti.

Since this is a story about language, naturally the plot turns on a cataclysmic failure of grammar. Owing to the Japanese propensity to frame questions in the negative, when Amélie says no, it is received as yes, and lo, she has accepted Rinri’s proposal of marriage – a point of confusion she is too polite to correct.

Tokyo Fiancée is a light, lovely little romance, winningly told and entertaining. It’s a fine primer on the way in which language mirrors culture. When Rinri proclaims his love, he is using a word that the bashful Japanese would traditionally avoid. “The fact that Rinri’s declarations were directed to a French-speaking woman and could be uttered in either French or in Japanese surely had something to do with it: the French language, no doubt, represented a territory that was both prestigious and licentious, a place where one could indulge one’s inadmissible feelings.”

For her part, Amélie prefers to couch her feelings in Japanese. Unmarried Japanese conventionally call their partners koibito, from koi, meaning liking. Rinri “was to my liking. He was my koibito, the man with whom I shared the koi: his company was to my liking… It might be said that Rinri and I had each contracted the typical inclination of the other’s language: giddy with the novelty of it, he played at love, and I delighted in koi.”

While serving up a sushi platter of such cultural delectables, Nothomb also captures well the nature of love for adventurers still in their twenties. Amélie finds a haven in Rinri, a courteous, tender companion to help her navigate the peculiarities of a strict country where elderly couples like his grandparents cackle manically and make lewd gestures that the rest of the family overlooks. She learns that such unhinged seniors are common in Japan: “In a land where people must behave well all their lives, what often happens is that on the verge of old age, they snap.”

Yet for young aspirants, love is a trap – a potentially crippling snare that would chain them in place before finding their destiny. This is a trap that Amélie escapes, if without much consideration or grace, at least with efficiency.

Like her narrator, Nothomb was born in Japan, which she left at the age of five. The child of Belgian diplomats, Nothomb grew up in a host of countries, providing her with an eye for what makes cultures truly different, and for the ways in which we’re all secretly the same.

She is astonishingly prolific, and among the 10 of her books translated into English since 1993, the slender Tokyo Fiancée is almost a throwaway. But let’s not throw it away. It’s charming.

Lionel Shriver is author of ‘The Post-Birthday World’ (HarperCollins)