Straight from the title, “Lion Cross Point” places high literary stock in animals. Birds, mammals and sea creatures populate its pages, enclosed by prose in this paper zoo. Monkeys stumble around backyards and graveyards, dolphins escape to the open ocean and an octopus is colorfully gutted and boiled. In up-and-coming Japanese author Masatsugu Ono’s latest, the featured animals are more prevalent and intricate than most human characters.
The common bond that unites all animals of the novel is mystery: They are painted as murky, unknown symbols obscured by the realities of life. As the reader puzzles over their significance, so does Takeru, the young protagonist of “Lion Cross Point.” Surprisingly and stoically silent for a fourth grader, Takeru spends the summer in the home village of his mother, living with his new caretaker Mitsuko and befriending his plucky neighbor, the even younger Saki. While this sounds like the setup to a heartwarming coming-of-age story, the weighty narrative is grounded in solemnity and poignancy.
Superficially, Takeru is a caring yet shy boy who loves Pokémon and baseball and is almost never seen without his FC Barcelona or Manchester United cap. However, the real Takeru, the Takeru who hides behind a façade of silence, is a child who’s been forced to grow up too fast. He’s been forced to bear witness to terrible domestic abuse and the psychological destruction of his mother who seemingly abandoned him. He’s been forced to assume the caretaker role for his older brother, who seems the younger because of his undetermined mental disability. Takeru is wrought by grief, anger, shame and regret, unable to overcome his trauma due to his innocence.
Perhaps that is why Takeru muses about animals so often — they are constant in their obscurity, unlike the people in his life who puzzle and confuse him with their oscillating decisions and personalities. The behavior of animals is essentially explained, but their purpose is not, leading Takeru to associate meaning however he sees fit. He dreams of an aquarium dolphin named Johnnie with purported healing powers and seeks comfort in a future trip to the idyllic “Dolphin Village.” He feels secure in a playground referred to as “Zebra Park” because of the presence of a plastic zebra next to the swings. He identifies two junior-high girls with an alpaca and an owl as they unintentionally bring him to the verge of tears parroting about Johnnie’s disappearance from the aquarium. For Takeru, animals are a way to both liven his distressing life and soften the constant fear he faces.
Translated sparingly into English by Angus Turvill, the language of “Lion Cross Point” is at times strikingly minimalist and devoid of definition. Often a paragraph will be lost on the reader, floating away after initial consumption and clouding the substance of the writing. Ono also flirts with the premise of a supernatural ghost story at times as a strange figure by the name of Bunji inhabits Takeru’s memories and observations. This Bunji may or may not be the shade of a delicate youth who vanished long ago at the titular location and eerily mirrors the brother of Takeru. This phantom narrative thread is never fully developed due to Ono’s conservative style, so it mostly ends up obfuscating the plot. Another source of confusion comes in the way Takeru is focalized; the way the omniscient narrator relates his thoughts and actions and how he deals with hardships makes Takeru frequently seem like a middle-aged protagonist better suited for the oeuvre of Kenzaburō Ōe.
While most of the novel’s problems stem from a lack of discernible detail, at points it purely clicks and introspective clarity is achieved from simplicity. There may be no hopeful future or happy ending in sight for Takeru — really, there’s no ending at all — and it seems like he is destined for the same bleak life back home when the scorching summer stops. He may have suffered through terribly blunt acts of brutality, but in the kindness he encounters in his ancestral village, he experiences subtle, moving catharsis. A glance at the breathtaking panorama of “Lion Cross Point” may be brief, but for Takeru, the promontory is unforgettable and lasting in its importance, as magnificent as the dolphins gliding past it.