The Wild Geese by Ogai Mori

One of the things I missed the most during my blogging hiatus was Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge. Whenever I participated in the past, I discovered books that made my end of year list. Obviously, I could read Japanese literature, of which I’m very fond, all year long, but we all know how it goes, when you’re a mood reader or “magpie reader”, as I call myself, you pick what speaks to you at a certain time and forget everything else. Unfortunately, as the last two years have shown me, it’s not a successful approach to reading. At least not for me. I need to have a few loose plans.

Ogai Mori’s novel is a recent acquisition and since I was keen on reading older Japanese literature, I felt it was a fitting choice for the challenge.

Ogai Mori (1862 – 1922) was an Army Surgeon, novelist, and translator. From 1884 to 1888 he studied medicine in Leipzig, Münich, and Berlin. In Germany he discovered the literature of many European countries and later translated classics like Shakespeare, Schiller, Goethe, Kleist, Rilke, Daudet, Tolstoy and many more into Japanese.

The Wild Geese, (or Wild Goose) is considered his masterpiece. It was serialized between 1911 and 1913 in the Japanese newspaper Subaru and finally published as a book in 1915.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator who is friends with the main protagonist, Okada, a medical student at the university in Tokyo. They both live in a boarding house for medical students. The story is set in 1880, during the Meiji era, a time, when Tokyo was no longer called Edo but wasn’t yet the Tokyo we know now.

Otama is a young woman who is very beautiful but also very poor. She and her father who raised her as a single parent are very close. There isn’t anything she wouldn’t do for him. When her marriage to an influential man is annulled, she accepts the position as concubine of a rich usurer. This deal allows her father to live comfortably in a very beautiful house, surrounded by nature. Otama herself lives in a side street in Tokyo with a young maid. She has no contact to people as they all avoid and ostracize her. One day she sees Okada from her window and they both feel a strong attraction. Will Otama be able to break free? If you’d like to find out, you’ll have to read the novel.

The Wild Goose is as subtle as it is beautiful. I liked it very much. It’s rich in detailed descriptions of the culture and customs of the time. Flora and fauna play important, often symbolic roles in this story. Throughout the novel we find descriptions of nature that reinforce the mood and the themes of the novel. One of the most powerful examples of nature descriptions was the episode of the wild geese which takes place towards the end of the novel. I was wondering from the beginning why Ogai Mori chose this title as it didn’t seem to make sense. When it was finally revealed, it was quite shattering.

While Mori Ogai is excellent at describing nature, he is also a very fine psychologist and a keen observer of relationships. The friendship between the narrator and Okada, and the relationship between Otama and her father a beautifully rendered.

This book is set during a time when the Japanese society was undergoing profound changes. It doesn’t look like things were changing for women though. To read about Otama is quite upsetting. She has the misfortune of being poor but beautiful which attracts powerful men who don’t have any intention of getting married to her and don’t care that this pushes her to the fringes of society. She might be the mistress in her own home, but as soon as she leaves the house, she’s an outcast.

What impressed me the most, is how immersive this story was. Reading it felt like making a trip to a distant place and time. The imagery, themes, and story are so haunting, I don’t think I’ll forget them any day soon.

I didn’t read the English, but the German translation of this book, which seemed well done. It was published by Manesse in their Bibliothek der Weltliteratur series. If you know the series, you know how beautiful and luxurious these small books are.

This post is a contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 6

The Ten Best Novels I Read This Year

Happy New Year. I hope you’re all doing really well and that 2023 will bring you light and joy.

I’ve been gone a while. Over a year, to be precise. Since summer I knew I wanted to return to blogging, if only to help myself remember what I’ve been reading. It’s easy to remember the books that make our top ten lists at the end of the year but all the others? Not so much. There are a few titles I saw on other people’s lists that I read too but until I read those lists, I’d totally forgotten about them. Needless to say, they won’t be on my list. Very often this has nothing to do with their quality at all. It has more to do with me as a reader. I’ve been an extremely distracted reader this year. I read far too many books in parallel and abandoned far too many. Nevertheless, the ten novels on my list not only captivated me, but they stayed with me.
I’ve read a lot of memoir and other nonfiction books this year. as well Also some poetry. More than usual, but to keep the list short, I’m only mentioning the novels.

Über Menschen by Juli Zeh

This chunky book hasn’t been translated yet. Possibly, because it was very controversial. It tells, among other things, the story of a woman who befriends a Neo-Nazi and tries to understand where he’s coming from. But it’s also set during the beginning of 2020 and the narrator flees to the country to avoid strict lockdown rules. I loved it for the writing. They way Juli Zeh describes people and places is just so immersive. I also found it courageous.

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

This was not what I expected. I had high expectations but more for the story, less for the writing. The stellar writing was a huge surprise. The rhythm of the book conveys the music the protagonist listens too. Each short chapter has its own flow, own rhythm. Some sentences, images are repeated, some sections meander, others are written in a staccato rhythm. The story, too, is beautiful and heartbreaking. As a woman, I’m often afraid to walk through certain neighborhoods as it can be scary to find yourself totally alone facing a hostile looking stranger. Now I know that young black men must feel like this just as often.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri

What a haunting book. And so unusual. I don’t want to give away too much, I will just say that it tells the story of a homeless man, of social invisibility, using a very ingenious approach.

Passager de la nuit by Maurice Pons

This hasn’t been translated. Too bad as I loved it. It shows a side of the war of Algeria, or rather how the war played out in France, I was less familiar with.

Sunday in Ville-d’Avray – Un Dimanche à Ville-d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris

A dreamy, lyric, short novel with a rich mood. Two sisters meet, speak about their childhood, their dreams, and one confesses a secret love story.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

Not one of Pym’s lighter novels, this story of four people who might not exactly have had the life they wished for, is still typical Pym. As usual, the character portraits are rich and detailed and the story, while sad in places, isn’t depressing. I liked it a great deal. She’s such a sharp observer.

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

Another novel from a sharp observer. This might not be my favorite Taylor novel but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The main character, a widow, marries a far younger man and it soon becomes clear, she might have made a huge mistake. Wonderful character portraits and a surprisingly enjoyable story.

The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley

Such a beautifully nostalgic novel. It begins during a summer holiday at the outbreak of WWII which will change everyone present. Fifty years later, the protagonists meet again for a funeral. It’s not a very straightforward novel but very immersive nonetheless.

The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff 

I’m so glad I saw this mentioned on Twitter and elsewhere several times as I wouldn’t have discovered it on my own and that would have been such a shame. I read it in September and loved every page of it. Such a gentle, delightful book that tells of the holiday of an ordinary family and of the little joys and woes the holiday brings. Even though this book came out in 1931, most of what Sherriff describes is still relatable now. A timeless classic of a family holiday.

Mrs England by Stacey Halls

I can’t say that this historical novel was flawless, yet I still had a book hangover after finishing it, wishing it had been longer and looking for other, similar novels after putting it down. Mrs England tells the story of an Edwardian marriage and its dark undercurrents. The ending didn’t work for me, but the way Stacey Halls captured Edwardian England was so descriptive and captivating.


When I look at my best of list, it wasn’t such a bad reading year, but being able to easily whittle it down to ten, says a lot about the year as a whole. Normally, I always include a few crime novels in my end of year lists, but this year I managed to pick one dud after the other or just books that didn’t speak to me at all.

I decided to focus on novels in this post, but I didn’t want to end without mentioning my favourite memoir of the year, Horatio Clare’s The Light in the Dark, a Winter Journal. It’s about winter, the Yorkshire countryside, nature, depression and, as the title says, the light in the dark. Stunningly beautiful. Maybe my favourite book of the year.