I have seen Yuki Chan in Brontë Country by Mick Jackson (Faber and Faber, January 2015) described elsewhere as “strange,” as if “strange” is a bad thing. Whatever the opposite of “strange” is, why would we want our books to be that? Frankly, I like strange books. I enjoy the sensation of feeling swept up in a peculiar story with some eccentric characters. For these reasons, as a start, I loved Yuki Chan in Brontë Country. The book can be split pretty evenly into two parts, with the first presenting Yuki, a young Japanese woman, seeming to follow a standard Brontë tourism trail, and the second delving more deeply into the reasons behind her trip to England.
The most winning thing about Yuki Chan in Brontë Country is Yuki herself. She is charming, hilarious, independent and complex and I wanted to be her friend. The first half of the book is filled with Yuki’s amusingly irreverent reflections on everything from English architecture (“in Japan, an old house like this would’ve been flattened and rebuilt half a dozen times, along with every other building in town” is how she reflects on the Brontë Parsonage) and the Brontës themselves. Yuki’s mocking attitude as she walks the hallowed corridors of the sisters’ home borders on iconoclasm and provides plenty of humour in the early part of the novel.
So now Yuki’s wondering if the Brontë kids weren’t, in fact, exceptionally gifted linguists – or whether having your hands do different things wasn’t just as wild an evening as you were likely to have back then.
There is plenty of good-natured needling of tourists and their bizarre ability to be excited by absolutely anything – “Yuki is tempted to enquire whether this collection of rocks doesn’t also have its own significance in Brontëland. Was this not, perhaps, Brontë Picnic Corner? Or Brontë Quick Stop for a Pee?” – all of which develops the idea that Yuki is an untamed spirit, one who cannot fully grasp the reality of such a cloistered life. Yuki is, after all, many thousands of miles from home on a secret mission; her experience is far-removed from that of the Brontës.
Except that it isn’t, at least, not as removed as it initially seems. Early on, Jackson hints at Yuki’s real aims in visiting Haworth, where the realisation on entering the first bedroom that this “is where the mother passed away, knowing that all her children would have to go on, motherless” is “really just about too much for poor Yukiko.” The absent-mother storyline is one which becomes more important as the novel progresses, with Jackson executing an abrupt about-face as Yuki’s tale changes from comedy to tragedy. The two are juxtaposed throughout, with Yuki wondering if flinging herself on an old Brontë bed would result in “being dragged off to the local jailhouse, to be beaten about the body with copies of Wuthering Heights.” I shall now stop behaving like a Hollywood trailer which shows all the best bits, negating the need to see the film; suffice to say, I think Yuki Chan in Bronte Country is probably the most quotable book I’ve read this year (and I say this writing at the back-end of 2015 rather than three weeks into the new year when the book is published).
For all that I laughed during the first part of the book, I felt my eyes starting to water (allergies, obviously) in the latter section; when Yuki describes herself as “teetering on a half-built bridge,” she sums up the two distinct segments and tones of the novel: she, along with the reader, is “on the cusp of revelation, or quite possibly oblivion” as she learns more about her mother’s past.
I’m not sure of the cause for the seemingly sudden glut of Brontë-related fiction (I’ve also read The Brontë Plot by Katherine Reays and Worlds of Ink and Shadow by Lena Coakley recently, and eagerly anticipate Alison Case’s Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights in 2016), but, for me, if everyone wants to write a book set in Haworth that’s as good as Yuki Chan in Brontë Country, then I’m completely okay with that. Mick Jackson’s novel is beautifully written and entirely unique, with a heroine who will not be soon forgotten. I am going to read this book again. And again. And again…