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Chiya Fujino: ルート225 [Route 225]

Eriko Tanaka is a teenage Japanese girl. She lives with her parents and her younger brother, Daigo, whose thirteenth birthday opens the novel. One day Daigo seems to be late coming back from school and his mother is worried, not least because when this happened last time Daigo had been arrested for stealing a bicycle. She sends Eriko out to look for him. Eriko sets off in the direction of the school and she bumps into a former teacher, who tells her that she has seen Daigo in the children’s playground. She is surprised but does find him there, sitting on a swing. To her surprise he is not wearing his shirt but only a vest. She finds out that he has his shirt in his bag and, when he puts it on, she sees why. Someone has written Dioxin 8 times in black felt pen on the back. She does not ask him why.

Eventually, the two of them set off back home. However, the route seems unfamiliar, despite the fact that they know it well. The post office and the multi-storey car park, as well as other familiar buildings, no longer seem to be there. When Daigo raises the issue, Eriko tells him to keep quiet. However, when they get to the busy main road and it is no longer a road but a river, she is starting to get worried. However, she thinks that they have merely taken the wrong road. Daigo thinks reality has somehow changed. Even more worrying, the town name on the lamppost says Bâka, a place they have never heard of. They meet a couple of people but get no help from them. They do not have mobile phones and cannot find either a public phone or a fast food outlet. Then they see a girl coming out of a house with a dog. Eriko goes up to her to ask the way. The name on the house is Kumanoi, though we do not learn her first name. She recognises Daigo – it seems that they were in primary school together. However, Daigo drags his sister away. She thinks that he is embarrassed. However, when they have got some distance away from the girl, he tells Eriko that the girl died of pneumonia a while back.

Eventually, they get back to the children’s playground, where there is a public phone box and they phone home. Their mother urges them to come home straight away by the normal route and, indeed, when they take the same route again, they get home. However, back at home, there is no sign of either parent and nor do they reappear the next morning. The two children go off to school – they are in different, single-sex schools. At the school, Eriko again meets Kumanoi. When Eriko asks her about how her dog is, she is annoyed and replies that Eriko knows full well that the dog died.

Apart from the reappearance of Kumanoi and the temporary change in the scenery, which is now no longer a problem, there are only a few other minor changes. Daigo manages to phone his mother from school and she responds and urges him to come home. A neighbour, about the same age as Eriko, whose real name is Matsumoto but has been nicknamed Macho (because of his name, not because of his nature) seems to have put on weight as does Daigo’s favourite baseball player. Eriko had fallen out with her best friend at school. However, not only does this girl seem to want to be friendly with Eriko, Eriko finds, in her bag, a letter from the girl which thanks Eriko for having reconciled with her. Eriko has no recollection of ever having received this letter before and no recollection of any reconciliation with her. So what has happened and why?

While, obviously, the alternative reality, if that is what it is, is the main part of this novel, the brother-sister relationship is also important. Eriko is very much the big sister. She teases Daigo mercilessly, rejects his theories about what has happened and his ideas for a solution and generally keeps him at check at all times. The only time she does not is when they go to his school, which is his territory and she has to stay well behind as obviously he would not want to be seen by the others boys with his sister. Daigo is shy, he is clearly bullied at school, has no friends, is something of a Mummy’s boy (Eriko accuses him of having an Oedipus complex) and is only interested in baseball (following the game not playing it). He is very scared by the situation while Eriko is worried but not too scared. He looks to his big sister for help and advice and she points out to him that she is not his mother. However, as the situation continues, she does modify her behaviour.

Inevitably the background to the story is the culture of Japanese teenagers, with numerous references to current pop music, football and baseball players (Eriko is more interested in football than baseball) and food. Indeed, when their parents are not at home, Eriko and Daigo seem more concerned about getting fed than finding their parents. Slang is, of course, key to the book and it must have been quite difficult to translate. All I can say is that, if you read this book in French as I did, a knowledge of contemporary French slang will be essential.

This is not a typical sci-fi novel where characters slip into an alternative, parallel universe because of a time warp or some other extraterrestrial science fiction trope, though obviously that is part of the novel. Indeed, the situation of the two children is clearly unsettling, as most things seem to be more or less the same and, doubtless, if their parents had not disappeared, they would barely have noticed the changes. Fujino tells her story well and also offers us a brief introduction to twenty-first century Japanese teenage culture.

Publishing history

First published in 2002 by Rironsha
No English translation
First French translation by Editions Thierry Magnier in 2002