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Lost Girls and Love Hotels

by Catherine Hanrahan

As fascinating as contemporary Japanese culture is to a seemingly large segment of the North American population, there are only a small handful of Canadian-penned novels set in the modern-day land of the rising sun. Mixing unconventional stylistic flourishes with compelling descriptions of Japanese cultural oddities as seen through Western eyes, Montreal-born first-time novelist Catherine Hanrahan’s Lost Girls and Love Hotels is an interesting addition to the genre of Canadian urban fiction.

The novel follows Margaret, a twenty-something Canadian expat who works as an English-language specialist at a school for Japanese stewardesses and who, by night, carouses in the neon streets of Tokyo, partaking in a plenitude of alcohol, illicit drugs, and bondage-style sex with strange men, including Kazu, the mysterious married man she eventually falls in love with. This is all in an attempt to escape a past in Toronto that revolves around her schizophrenic brother, Frank, whose condition and history of emotional abuse at the hands of their father we learn about in a series of flashbacks scattered throughout the book.

The flashbacks are one of the more conventional narrative devices Hanrahan uses. Others include tirades of short, simple sentences, which are intoxicating to read but occasionally irritating in their frequency, and lapses into second-person perspective that will either excite or grate on readers.

One initially compelling strategy that is, unfortunately, overused to the point of ineffectiveness is the unswerving nihilism and sense of worthlessness in the narrator’s voice. Cynics may relate to early instances of her self-deprecation, but even the most jaded readers will find Margaret’s continually bleak outlook tiresome and the book’s hopeful ending unearned.

One of the novel’s strengths is its portrayal of the curiosities of Tokyo. Hanrahan seamlessly blends the city’s disparate landscapes: cardboard cities that serve as dwellings for Tokyo’s homeless; the Harajuku district, where teens appear on the weekends in elaborate costume; and Shibuya Station, the busiest transit centre in the world, serving over 3 million people each day. Mixing descriptions of the city’s underground nightclub scene, high-class kabuki theatre, entertainment skyscrapers, and theme rooms n love hotels that can be rented by the hour for trysts, Lost Girls and Love Hotels could almost be read as an alternative travel guide.