Ray is an English teacher working in Japan, having been sacked from his job in London in advertising. Having a degree in Japanese Studies he’s been to the country before, knows it well, speaks the language. While there he meets Tomoe, a woman better than him in so many ways: more beautiful, more charismatic, with a greater zeal for life. He falls for her and he falls hard. But there’s a surprise in stall, when she tells him that something has happened to her father and it has to do with the Yakuza. She asks him to help her with her inquiries, then she goes missing. Ray is now drawn deeper and deeper himself into the underbelly of Japan and it’s a dark place indeed, especially for a gaijin - foreigner - like himself.
Many novels claim a sense of place, and this is especially seen as important by some crime novel readers. Of course, not all novels need to do this and there are many a successful novel, including crime novels and thrillers, that don’t try to conjure up a particular locale. For those that do, some succeed, some don’t, while others still come across as mere travelogue. What marks Falling from the Floating World out as special is that not only does it conjure Japan and Tokyo up beautifully, this sense of place is integral to the entire plot. Indeed, this is not a novel that could have been set anywhere else, so vital is the culture and society of Japan to the story. This is hardly surprising, as the author, Nick Hurst, has spent much time in the Far East, including Japan, and obviously knows the region well. Even so, the research that has gone into this novel, his knowledge of Japanese society, its underworld and the Yakuza, Japanese myths and folklore - all of which is fed into the novel’s narrative - is deeply impressive.
In a world increasingly homogenous, there are arguably few places which have held onto their individual cultural identity as much as Japan, and the author introduces the reader to a rich tapestry. There are the myriad different layers of prostitution; the fact that the Yakuza are semi-legal, indeed, they have their own offices, signposted (albeit discreetly), a situation unthinkable in other countries - imagine if the Sicilian Mafia had offices. These major facets are fascinating, but it’s the smaller things I found most intriguing. One such example is the homeless caused by the Japanese economic downturn. Unlike the homeless in Western nations, these are not the product of broken homes, mental ill-health, alcoholism or drug abuse; rather, these are salaried workers who have lost the job-for-life, people who abandon their families through shame, their carefully constructed shelters on the sidewalk intricately put together and cared for. Another example is the pod hotels, tiny rooms let out for the night. Some cater specifically to those planning illicit liaisons, complete with keys dispensed by vending machine and no staff in sight.
While the plot of Falling from the Floating World is strong and keeps the reader turning the page - I grew to like Ray, a regular guy quickly out of his depth, while Tomoe is beguiling, and one can understand why Ray falls for her - it’s the depth of the world the author creates that makes this novel something special. I really felt like I learnt something about Japan (a country to which I’ve never been), that I understand its society and culture a little better, and that’s a very rare thing in a novel. This is a fascinating novel, and Nick Hurst is a talent to watch, and I certainly look forward to reading whatever he chooses to write next.
5 out of 5 stars