Marina is adrift in her life. She runs from the numbness of her father’s suicide to Japan. She is in Shika, Japan for one year to be an English teacher. She thought she could escape her past, but in Japan her past found her.
In Malena Watrous’s If You Follow Me, she presents Marina, a young woman of 22 who follows her lover to Japan to teach English. In the book, the character references going to Japan because she wasn’t sure what else to do with her life. Marina is this raw, emotional character who leaps from the pages of the book and sucks in the reader.
Marina lives in Shika, an equivalence to rural Georgia, with Carolyn in a small disastrous flat that was occupied by American missionaries before them. The two inherit random junk from past inhabitants – including a monstrous refrigerator called an Amana that reeks of rotten beef. Among having to adjust to culture polar opposite to American culture, Marina receives almost daily letters from her supervisor Hiroshi Miyosh about their gomi, or trash. In Japan, there are very strict rules about the disposal of any type of trash. Only on certain days, certain parts of trash can be thrown away and must be placed in a special bin. Soon, Marina is convinced all of the neighbors watch her waiting for her to make a “gomi trash mistake”.
Soon, she begins teaching English at the local schools. She finds the students difficult to connect with because, at first, she only teaches the secretarial students. The students are all female, except for one male student Haruki, who locked himself in his room for four years. She tries creating worksheets to teach the students, but they are all disinterested. Frustrated, she tries to reach out to her Japanese colleagues to curb her loneliness, but she only feels isolation because of the language and culture gap.
Faced with more challenges, Marina begins teaching at the local elementary school that helps to find other people besides Carolyn. The art teacher allows her pupils to draw Marina while Marina gets to know the other students. Particularly, one Korean student who barely speaks Japanese attracts her attention because her inability to speak to the language. There is something about the girl Marina can’t shake – her loneliness, her connection to another foreigner or her inability to fit into Japanese society. Either way, Marina begins to really question why she went to Japan: Was it because of Carolyn? Was it her running from her dad’s suicide? Or was it something else?
At this point in the book, Marina really begins to ask herself what she is going to do with her future. After a shared kiss with her supervisor, she begins to doubt her relationship with Carolyn and the two begin drift apart. Marina flip-flops between teaching the elementary students and a class of teen-aged boys who work in the local power plant. They challenge her every day because no matter what lessons she presents in English the boys don’t care. They drove another female teacher from the school because they sexually harrassed her. After an interesting lesson about sexual education and a slip up with a banana, Marina realizes she must stop being timid and stand up for herself in a very loud way.
I skimmed a shelves of books looking for something new to read when this one leaped out. I looked at the back expecting to have another easy chick lit book to break up the endless science fiction novels I’ve been reading for a literature class. After getting 50 pages in, I couldn’t put the book down. There was something raw and clingy about Marina throughout the book. The “gomi trash” mistakes are a humorous part of the novel, but it was more about the themes of finding one’s self and the attraction of a foreign country. Marina is 22, and so am I. She turns 23 in the book and I am on the cusp of turning 23. Marina has an anxiety about the future and what she is going to do with the rest of her life, and so do I.
Watrous addresses the fear of being at a strange in between age that doesn’t seem to have much significance in American society. In one passage, Marina and Carolyn are talking about being 23. Carolyn begins, “At age 25 for some reason, lovers in Japan get together to eat sponge cake on Christmas Even. These sponge cakes go half off on December 25, when no one wants them anymore. At twenty-five, an unmarried woman is referred to as a Christmas cake.” Who wants to be known as a Christmas cake by the age of 25?!
I won’t ruin the ending for the readers, but it was refreshingly new and pleasant to read besides the umpteenth science fiction book.