Child of the Stars

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Child of the Stars
Author: Natsuko Imamura
Specifications: ISBN  978-4022514745
224 pages
13.8 x 19.6 cm / 5.5 x 7.8 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Asahi Shimbun Publications Inc.
Tokyo, 2017
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This story of a girl who grows up in a family that finds comfort in a new religion centers mainly on events when she is a ninth grader, with flashbacks taking the reader to her earlier years.

Chihiro Hayashi is considerably below normal weight at birth and spends nearly three months in an incubator before being released from the hospital. At home, she has difficulty nursing and remains sickly, requiring frequent trips back to the hospital for additional care. At about six months she breaks out with an itchy rash on her face, which quickly spreads to the rest of her body over the course of a week. Home remedies as well as ointments prescribed by a specialist have no effect. Chihiro wails through the night from the discomfort, while her parents sob helplessly beside her. Even her five-year-old sister Masami joins in the tears.

When Mr. Hayashi mentions their troubles to a work colleague named Ochiai, the man immediately blames their water. The next day he brings Mr. Hayashi some special water in a plastic container. “Wet a washcloth with this water and gently wipe Chihiro’s body with it,” he says, and when Mrs. Hayashi follows these instructions, the rash begins to fade noticeably in just three days, Chihiro gradually stops crying at night, and in two months her skin is completely clear. With this experience as proof of its efficacy, the Hayashis become true believers in the water known as the “Gift of Venus,” touted as “holding the energy of the universe” and having many other efficacies. On Ochiai’s recommendation they also adopt the peculiar custom of placing a cloth soaked with the water on top of their heads.

Eight years later, when Chihiro is in the second grade, Mrs. Hayashi’s younger brother, Yūzō, who lives nearby, is no longer willing to stand idly by as his sister’s family sinks ever more deeply into the cultish religious practices that began with their faith in the special water. He starts dropping in frequently, telling them they are being duped and exhorting them to open their eyes. But after a time, he stops criticizing the sect and even says some things that seem to acknowledge the special powers of the water. Then one Sunday, he reveals his true purpose: “That water came from the tap at the park,” he tells the Hayashis. He had secretly removed several cases from the Hayashis’ Gift of Venus stockpile and replaced the contents with water from the park. By the time Yūzō reveals his subterfuge, the Hayashis have been using ordinary city water for two months without noticing any difference from their special water. They fly into a rage and drive Yūzō from the house. Their relatives cut off all further relations with them.

Three years later, Chihiro’s sister Masami is expelled from high school for barely ever showing up, and runs away from home. The night before she leaves, she reveals to Chihiro that she helped Yūzō with the water switch. By around this time, Mr. Hayashi has resigned from his position at an insurance company to take a job he learns of through a “church” connection, and Mrs. Hayashi has almost completely stopped caring about her appearance. The couple wear matching green sweat suits and have taken to going everywhere with Gift of Venus–soaked cloths on their head, not caring what people might think. In fact, their neighbors have all begun to view them with considerable misgivings. Masami remains missing. The family moves several times, each time to a home with less living space. As their lives grow increasingly erratic, sometimes barely eating, Chihiro reaches the age of 15.

Much of the interest of the story comes from Chihiro’s ability to retain her bright, cheerful disposition while living under such challenging conditions. Even though she has almost no friends at school, she experiences crushes on a young math teacher as well as on a classmate. Meanwhile, she has plenty of friends she can confide in at church. Since her parents have been banned from family gatherings, Chihiro heads off by herself to services for the sixth anniversary of her grandmother’s death. She remembers the fancy meal that followed the second anniversary services. (Note: The second and sixth anniversaries hold special significance in Buddhism.)

When one of the only friends she has at school tells her that she and her parents are being hoodwinked, Chihiro insists that it’s not true, but she does have her doubts. If she passes the exam to the high school she wants to attend next spring, she will have a 90-minute commute by bicycle, but it would be only five minutes from Uncle Yūzō’s house. Yūzō suggests that she move in with him for high school, but she flatly refuses. “I’m fine,” she insists. “I like the way things are.” But at other times when classmates ask, “Do you really believe?” all she can say is, “I don’t know.”

In December, Chihiro and her parents take a bus trip to the annual overnight retreat the church holds at the “Village of the Stars.” In the final scene, the three Hayashis go outside to search the sky for falling stars.

Author Natsuko Imamura demonstrates an ability to capture the subtle movements of the impressionable adolescent heart with a high degree of authenticity. Her first novel-length work was shortlisted for the prestigious Akutagawa prize and seems certain to give this promising young writer’s career a boost.