GHOST OF A SMILE by Deborah Boliver Boehm


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A witty, well-crafted fictional debut from an accomplished journalist, translator, and memoirist (A Zen Romance: One Woman's Adventures in a Monastery, 1996): eight stories, all set in contemporary Japan, that chronicle supernatural occurrences in the often-lonely lives of educated urbanites.

Postmodern retellings of the traditional Japanese ghost stories popularized in the West by fin de siècle journalist Lafcadio Hearn, these longish, plot-driven pieces are actually—aside from the paranormal episodes at the heart of them—tales of romance rather than the grisly stuff of Poe or Lovecraft. "Hungry Ghosts in Love," the centerpiece of the collection, concerns Josephine Stelle, a "third-generation travel writer [and] third-generation woman of passion" who spends every waking moment trying to live up to the standards set by her intrepid grandmother Leda, reputedly one of Pancho Villa's lovers, by jetting around the globe, writing insipid articles ("Cannibal Fashion," "Best Hotel Brunches of Waikiki") for Japanese English-language travel magazines, and engaging in brief, torrid affairs with unsuitable men. Attempting to avoid one particularly offensive paramour, she impulsively treks up to a mountainous region of Japan known as the Valley of Hell, where she falls in love with Gaki, a gorgeous priest who lives alone in an ancient little shrine. When she returns to her Kyoto home, Josephine discovers that gaki means "hungry ghost." In "The Samurai Goodbye," the funniest and most nightmarish story here, a young Ph.D. program dropout—and grandson of a legendary chronicler of Japanese lore, clearly modeled on Lafcadio Hearn—finds himself haunted by faceless demons.

Despite a few moments of icky sentimentality, newcomer Boehm's fascinating subject matter, engaging cast, unerring prose, and superb sense of voice make for a compelling read.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2001
ISBN: 4-7700-2531-9
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Kodansha
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2001


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