Schoolgirl – Book Review

We have a vague notion of the best place we should go, or the beautiful places we should like to see, or the kinds of places that would make us grow as a person. We yearn for a good life. We have real hopes and ambitions. We feel impatient for an unshakable faith that we can rely on. But it would require considerable effort to express such things in our typical life as a girl. – from Schoolgirl, page 31 –

A young, Japanese girl wakes up fighting sadness, and missing her father who has died. She dresses, has breakfast and plucks some weeds from the garden before heading for school. As the day unfolds, she muses about life, arranged marriages, the struggles of growing up and being misunderstood; she wrestles with ambivalent feelings about her mother. She returns home from school and visits with her family and visitors, has dinner, bathes. It is all but an ordinary day in the life of a young schoolgirl. But it is less the actions of the protagonist and more her adolescent ruminations which draw the reader into Osamu Dazai’a slim novella.

This is a universal story about what it is like to grow from childhood into adulthood. The angst, moodiness, and introspection are all typical of adolescents who feel largely misunderstood.

Nobody in the world understood our suffering. In time, when we became adults, we might look back on this pain and loneliness as a funny thing, perfectly ordinary, but – but how were we expected to get by, to get through this interminable period of time until that point when we were adults? – from Schoolgirl, page 89 –

In Schoolgirl, the protagonist longs to grow up, but clings to childhood. She has the added burden of dealing with the death of her father, and her feelings toward her mother range from irritation to love.

I felt ashamed about the earlier resentment I had harbored towards Mother when Imaida had been here. I’m sorry, I formed the words softly. I only ever think of myself, I thought, I let myself be coddled by her to my heart’s content, and then take such a reckless attitude with her. – from Schoolgirl, page 83  –

Schoolgirl was the work which brought Dazai’s writing to the forefront of the literary world in post-war Japan. Within its pages can be found the cultural mores of this period in history, where girls in Japan were still finding themselves in arranged marriages. The young girl in the story worries about being forced into marriage to an older man who she does not love.

Across from me four or five salarymen who looked about the same age were just sitting there.  They must have been around 30. I didn’t like any of them. Their eyes were empty and dull. They had no vigor. But now, if I so much as grinned at them, I could very well be dragged off by one of these men, falling into the chasm of compulsory marriage. – from Schoolgirl, page 35 –

Dazai’s style is like a long, narrative poem – observant, simple and oddly compelling. I read this book in less than two hours, but found it haunting me for several days. Dazai does not name his narrator, and so she becomes symbolic of all young girls growing up and trying to define their identities against their families and society at large. Despite an underlying sadness there is also a great deal of optimism in this novella. When the young girl drops off to sleep at the end the tone is decidedly hopeful.

Schoolgirl is a literary work which appears simple on the surface, but explores themes of identity, family and grief. Readers who enjoy literary fiction will find this an interesting read.


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This book was read in translation from the Japanese (translated by Allison Markin Powell)

FTC Disclosure: Many thanks to One Peace Books who sent me this novella for review on my blog.



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    • Serena on November 4, 2011 at 15:56

    this sounds like a book I would enjoy.

    • Wendy on November 4, 2011 at 17:26

    Serena: I think you would really like this because it almost (almost) feels like a type of poetry. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on it. If you don’t mind a gently used copy, I can send you mine 🙂

    • zibilee on November 5, 2011 at 05:32

    I will be reading this book soon, and I am anxious to get to it. It does indeed sound like a story that is ultimately hopeful, and that really deeply examines the plight of this one young girl in detail. Great review! I am glad you liked it!

  1. I’ve needed something a bit deeper and a little bit more…well, literary. This looks like a nice one to get into. Thanks for the wonderful review.

    • Megan on November 5, 2011 at 16:51

    The way you describe this immediately reminded me of Everything Happens Today by Jesse Browner which (okay, maybe they’re not *that* much the same but…) is about one day in the life of a young guy in New York City, but the angst and the moodiness and the introspection are all there, plus the whole underlying sadness thing and then that ultimate hopefulness. I ended up really liking that one, so it sounds like this might be another good read for me!

    • Andi on November 6, 2011 at 08:16

    This sounds really interesting, heightened for me by the fact that a good friend of mind brought a 19-year-old Chinese girl she taught over from China several months ago. I’m curious how this book would stack up against some of the growing-up struggles this young lady has had.

    • Aths on November 7, 2011 at 18:28

    This book sounds beautiful! I had seen it around, but yours is the first review I’m reading. I’ll be looking forward to reading it.

    • Wendy on November 8, 2011 at 13:54

    Heather: I am eager to read your thoughts on this one!

    Pam: It is definitely literary! I think you’d like it.

    Megan: I haven’t read Everything Happens Today by Jesse Browner, but now you’ve made me curious!

    Andi: Interesting! I think you would find this a good read…

    Aths: Hope you’ll enjoy it!

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