Book Review: My Falling Down House by Jayne Joso

Book - My Falling Down HouseMy Falling Down House is a philosophical portrayal of what it means to be reduced to nothing, to become a nobody, to fall to the very bottom of reality and to question what it is to be human. The book transports the reader to Tokyo and a young man named Takeo Tanaka, former employee of a company hit by the financial crisis. He loses his job, his girlfriend and his home in quick succession. Having lost everything, he moves into a frail, abandoned house, made entirely of wood and paper, and attempts a total withdrawal from society.   

Joso takes the reader on a journey inside the mind of Takeo Tanaka. We hear his thoughts, and begin to align ourselves with his view of things – a young man trespassing in a falling down house. The house acts as a kind of cocoon, providing protection from the world outside. It is also a metaphor for Takeo himself. The house is broken, falling down, full of cracks. Takeo is also broken, and his grasp on reality is gradually breaking down further. He is drawn to this house partly because it is safe and empty – a refuge from the world:

“I lay back down and felt the sun pour over me, a yellow rain, and with it a wonderful heat. So intense I wanted to make a blanket of it, pull it around me, and curl up inside. And I wanted to lie there that way a good long while nothing but nothing in my head.”

To begin with, Takeo is at peace, happy to co-exist with Cat and Cello (who take on personalities of their own) and excited to create his own paper prototypes (fragile miniature dwellings made from cardboard boxes). But gradually a lack of nourishment leads to a physical breakdown. Takeo’s mind deceives him, as he becomes unable to discern between reality and imagination. He grows more and more afraid of discovery, realising that nourishment is what he really needs, yet unable to motivate himself to find it.

The novel explores the notion of self. What happens when someone’s whole world implodes, and all that is left is the physical body and the complexities of the human mind? Does this kind of trauma produce change in a person, or an entirely new identity?

Takeo eventually senses another presence in the house, invading his space. He cannot tell if this is a person or a spirit, conjured by his own mind. He fears human contact, and is both suspicious and full of hope. Then the presence becomes real and he begins to recover. But who has he become? And will he ever be able to step outside again?

My Falling Down House is written in a clipped concise prose that seems resonant of Takeo himself, occasionally mixed with a more colloquial phrase. It is addictive, leading you desperately from one page to the next, searching for the solution, along with Takeo, to the problematic situation in which he finds himself. But it is also frustrating, as Takeo denies himself the very things he needs, hungry and weak, unable to focus on reality. It is a strange, slightly stressful but intriguing narrative, exploring, in an elaborate and beautiful way, what happens to a person when everything they relied upon is lost. It does require patience, but is well worth persevering. I don’t recommend reading it whilst hungry.

Joso explains in the Afterword that she was inspired to write My Falling Down House by reading Kobo Abe’s The Box Man, as well as her personal experience of living in Japan. It is an attempt, she explains, to explore Japanese identity at a time when the country seems to be recovering from the trauma and change of recent years. But it is universal in its exploration of what it means to be human and how we make sense of ourselves.

My Falling Down House was published by Seren on 8th September, and Jayne Joso will be reading her work at their First Thursday event in Cardiff on 6th October.

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Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.