Review: Bar Flower
The rigidity of Japanese society strikes the frail American blossom Lea Jacobson like a kendo stick. She bruises easily, but makes much out of the pain in this memoir that yields an abundance of cross-cultural and sociological insights into the famously different land to our northeast. Lea soon turns out to be a hardier soul than one assumes from her recollections of teaching at Happy Learning English School. But when she moves from Kanagawa city to Tokyo, after she loses her job, the sensory overload and neon-hued anxiety vibrates on the pages.
This disturbing, boozy romp takes us down a road often travelled by Westerners seeking affirmation for time spent in an often baffling land. So why should we care? Jacobson’s prose is fluid and elegant, and her many digressions into what makes Japan tick with such a distinctive tock are fascinating. It’s also an intense journey into the psyche of the writer, who anesthetizes her pain with drink. Her emotional freefall is all the faster for taking place in a society where nonconformity is a sign of weakness.
Bar Flower says much about Japan’s less-than-progressive attitude to mental health, and about the feisty and resourceful woman who wrote it. Our heroine winds up as a hostess at some seedy joint called The Palace. Here the mama-san teaches her the art of being a decorative waif, serving salarymen drinks, lighting their cigarettes and stoking the flames of desire. A no-touching rule is more or less observed; nevertheless this is no job for someone in her condition.
Somehow, through this account of a gratuitously messedup life, Jacobson shines as a luckless and rather self-absorbed diarist who writes with an admirably bold spirit.