Evening Star: Nagira Yū Strikes a Chord with Latest Award-Winning Novel

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Japanese writer Nagira Yū won her second Japan Booksellers’ Award for her latest novel, a heartrending 15-year tale that begins with a boy and a girl meeting in high school on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea.

Permissible Adultery

“Once a month, my husband goes to see his lover.”

So begins Nanji, hoshi no gotoku (Thou Art Like a Star) by Nagira Yū. However, Nagira gives the reader no other hint as to the nature of this infidelity, cleverly laying out the tale down to the very last period, and only at the conclusion does the “permissible” nature of the affair become apparent.

Nagira’s story revolves around Akimi, a girl born and raised on a scenic island in the Seto Inland Sea, and Kai, a boy who transfers from Kyoto to the island’s high school. The two share a common bond beyond just being classmates; both are unable to break free from their self-absorbed parents despite the turmoil the relationships cause in their lives.

Akimi’s father lives off the island with his mistress. This has made her mother emotionally unstable, leading to one incident after another. Kai grows up fatherless. His mother, who seems unable to live without a man at her side, leaves Kyoto and moves to the island in pursuit of her latest lover, taking Kai with her. She opens a small bar on the island only for her boyfriend to abandon her.

Young Carers Drawn to Each Other

Akimi and Kai are both “young carers,” youths forced to look after their dysfunctional parents. This draws them to each other, and soon they become close. Their favorite date spot is on the beach with its rippling waves. One evening they discover a single star glittering in the dusky evening sky to the west. Kai tells Akimi that it is yūzutsu, the evening star. They stand holding hands, gazing upward, wrapped in a world of pristine love.

After graduating from high school, Kai moves to Tokyo with the dreams of becoming a manga artist. Left on the island, Akimi works to support herself. They try to keep their love alive, but separated, their feelings for each other wane. Kai finds success as a manga artist, but pitfalls await him in his new career. From this point the story proceeds at a rapid clip, describing events up to when the two reach the age of 32.

Though their parents are little help, the two protagonists are offered aid from unexpected sources who watch over them and offer encouragement. One is their high school teacher Kitahara, who is living alone with his young daughter, and the other is Akimi’s father’s mistress, Tōko. These two become increasingly important as the story unfolds.

In her late twenties, Akimi has a one-night stand, and rumors soon spread throughout the island. One night, Kitahara finds her alone on the beach and speaks to her.

“You mustn’t let things go on like this,” he admonishes her. “You’ll let your mother drag you down with her. It’s kids like you who are conscientious and have a strong sense of responsibility that become young carers.” He reminds her that she has sacrificed so much of her life to care for her mother, but now waking up to herself, she doesn’t know how to regain the life she has lost. “This is especially true on this island, where there are so few work opportunities for women to gain independence.”

Akimi flinches at the chiding, feeling that he is blaming her. But then Kitahara begins telling her about his own life, a story that no one on the island knows. He then makes a surprising offer.

Tōko also reaches out to Akimi. When Akimi is at a loss as to how to repay a debt incurred by her mother, Tōko teaches Akimi how to embroider so that she can have a skill to support herself. Akimi knows this is done as an act of contrition for the impact she has had on Akimi’s life. However, in time, Akimi becomes an accomplished embroidery artist achieving a level of success that makes Kai envious.

Message on a Binding

This book is uniquely structured, with the two protagonists alternating on center stage as the story progresses. The reader always knows what Akimi and Kai are thinking and feeling about each other even though their lives crisscross but never converge. To the very end of his life in Tokyo, Kai never forgets Akimi and the others he came to know on the island.

Nagira won the 2023 Japan Booksellers’ Prize for her novel, marking the second time she has received the award. The publisher has chosen a cover design that evokes images of Akimi and Kai’s encounter under the evening star, allowing the reader to linger for a while in the afterglow of the tale.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The cover of Nanji hoshi no gotoku. Courtesy of Kōdansha.)

Nanji hoshi no gotoku

By Nagira Yū
Published by Kōdansha in August 2022

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