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Hiromi Goto’s The Water of Possibility
Coteau Books, 2002

A few weeks ago, I re-read Janet Lunn’s 1981 children’s novel The Root Cellar. In her novel, the root cellar is a portal to another time and Rose’s travels through it take her to places she had only read about.

Janet Lunn provides the introduction to Hiromi Goto’s novel The Water of Possibility and it reads as though written to appear in all the books that are part of the “In the Same Boat” series. (This series comes from Coteau Books and “celebrate[s] the diverse cultures of our country”.*)

But it’s hard to imagine that the other books in this series have such a wonderful root cellar as that in Hiromi Goto’s The Water of Possibility, a root cellar that rivals Janet Lunn’s and sets a new root cellar standard.

The novel begins with Sayuri’s move to Ganola, a little town on the Alberta prairie, that offers her father, Jun, a nursing job that he’s been needing, and the quiet that her mother, Kimi, needs to write novels, but which seems to promise twelve-year-old Sayuri nothing but boredom, stuck in a queer, old house whose last occupants left in a strangely abrupt manner, with her 7YO brother, Keiji, the only kid she knows.

Exploring the house seems to offer little respite, although the top floor does have a beautiful view of the stars at night, but there is a swim team in town, one with a decent reputation, even, and that might make things bearable. And the swim coach even pronounces her name correctly without prompting, “properly rolling the ‘r’ halfway between an ‘l’ and an ‘r'”, which bodes well, although the other kids in the swim club aren’t all that welcoming or accepting of Sayuri.

Sayuri is not a flawless heroine, but a credible 12YO girl. When she is yanked out of her everyday world, she doesn’t always behave as she wishes she would, and the other characters in this story are complex and not always what they seem to be either. Even the parents (characters so often sketchily and vapidly written in kidlit) are multi-dimensional (at least to the extent that it’s believable from the perspective of a girl turning thirteen).

Overall, it seems like a pretty ordinary story of New Kid in Town, but then there’s the root cellar.

“She [Kimi] pointed at a door in the middle of the wall, a door so low that Jun would never get inside without bending. The door was different than the rest of the house. The wood was hewn out of thick timber and left without being planed or painted. Age had darkened the colour, and black metal hinges were nailed into the surface. Instead of a doorknob, there was a black latch handle.”

Sayuri’s fingertips buzz when she’s near it, and that’s really the smallest taste of the scene, but there’s no way that I’m telling you more, let alone what happens when she actually goes through the door.

Okay, you’ve twisted my reader’s arm —

so I will say that you meet creatures from Japanese folklore and mythology, like the kappa, the tanuki, and the tengu.

“Their small black eyes glittered curiously in their furry faces, faces that looked like a cross between a badger and a raccoon. Tanuki, Sayuri thought rapidly. Jan loved tanuki stories, although, he always qualified, they ought not to drink so much sake. They loved to hold feasts and they played tricks for fun. They shape-shifted too, but usually harmlessly.”

Creatures like these are what made The Water of Possibility so enjoyable for me. And, also, the fact that “Everyone talks…Don’t the creatures on your Earth As I Know It speak as well?”

I know, I know, talking animals aren’t for everybody, but in Hiromi Goto’s hands, it seems natural. And, besides, there’s nothing Disney-ish about these creatures. They are not only unrecognizable to me (raised on fantasy novels filled with witches and wizards and that’s as mystical as it got) but unpredictable in the context of the story.

(The Water of Possibility came out before the dubbed version of Hiyao Miyazaki’s film, “Spirited Away”, was released, but I had the same feeling watching that as I did reading this: where have these creatures been all my imaginative life? As much as I loved my childhood Enid Blyton years, which oozed with goblins and elves and spellbooks, these stories make me feel like I missed out bigtime.)

But better be bookishly-late than never. And I know a-certain-nearly-10YO and a-certain-nearly-6YO who’ll have this one on their shelves, alongside all those witch and wizard stories, who’ll have no problem relating to the other characters in this novel either.

“Ahhh, child,” the Old One crooned. “Your life spiral will take you to so many wonderful places.”

And that’s exactly where Hiromi Goto‘s novel takes her readers.

Thanks to the Once Upon Time challenge for pushing this one up my TBR stack. I’ll be bookchatting about her more recent novel written with youngsters in mind, Half World, next Saturday and, in between, about her novel The Kappa Child for the Women Unbound Reading Challenge.

Has anyone else spiralled somewhere magical in the pages of fiction recently?

* Here are some of the other books in this series from Coteau Books: I Have Been in Danger – Cheryl Foggo (3); Little Voice – Ruby Slipperjack (4); Escape Plans – Sherie Posesorski (5); Lost in Sierra – Diana Vazquez; Andrei and the Snow Walker – Larry Warwaruk. Has anyone read any of these?