My Falling Down House

Jayne Joso
Publication Date: 
Thursday, September 8, 2016
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My Falling Down House is a masterpiece’ – Anne Janowitz, Emerita Professor, Dept of English, Queen Mary University of London

‘This is a novel for anyone who has had a setback in life; for anyone who ever thought of escaping reality and retreating into the shadowy imagination. A beautiful exploration of identity by a hugely talented writer.’ – Eluned Gramich


Having lost his job and his home, Takeo Tanaka, a young Japanese man, takes refuge in a dilapidated wood and paper house. He sets himself projects in an attempt to hold on to his sanity and as recompense for trespassing and dwelling in a house for which he makes no payment. But with only a cat and a cello for company, his ability to distinguish between real and imagined events is soon deeply challenged, and he is ultimately held captive by his own paralysing suspicion of the outside world.

His fears and failing health keep him inside the house through four testing seasons, and he is driven to the edge of insanity as he pushes his creative abilities to keep himself occupied and retain his self-respect. He keeps notebooks, and attempts to map out the renovation work required on the house, constantly doubting his abilities but pushing his way through, endlessly searching for solutions. Building what he can out of the things he discovers inside the house, he permits his mind free reign to create and to mend.

When the shapeshifter (yokai) arrives, and begins to menace him, he is again made to doubt his sanity, and then also his sight, and his hearing. Questioning his previous life brings him to a point of crisis and he renegotiates his feelings towards a crippling modern world and all that this demands. As the seasons move on, he finds himself more and more deeply drawn into a relationship with nature and simple ways of living.

My Falling Down House by Jayne Joso is the Recipient of the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation Award, given to a work of fiction or non-fiction which helps to interpret modern Japan to the English-speaking world.


‘Joso has given us a philosophical and critical look inside the mind of someone from the “underground” in Dostoevskian style... a “man with no more substance than a pencil drawing, an image scratched in sand”. Brought down to zero, and beginning to depart from his cultural self, Takeo starts to see things he could never have seen before. But can he handle total freedom from society? Set in contemporary Japan... it simultaneously speaks to contemporary globalizing society at large. A remarkable achievement.’ – Sho Konishi, Professor in Modern Japanese History; Director, Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies, University of Oxford


Review by Rabeea Saleem, Wales Arts Review

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

My Falling Down House is the story of a Japanese man, Takeo, who is on the precipice of a downward spiral. The global economic crisis has a domino effect on his life as he loses his job, his girlfriend (Yumi), his money in gambling and ends up on the road as Yumi takes over their apartment. Takeo decides to take refuge in a dilapidated house he had once discovered while at a work party. This house becomes his sanctuary where he is all alone, accompanied only by his Cello and a cat. He seeks to take refuge and recover from the mental anguish he has gone through after losing so much in a short span of time.

The narrative traces his mental and spiritual journey as he is consumed by hopelessness and seems intent on renouncing humanity. He prefers to crawl around rather than walk, abstains from food and even tries to plant his head in a desperate attempt to seek sustenance from external route. Joso depicts his tortured mental state with acute perceptiveness.

My Falling Down House is about making sense of loss and starting over with a clean slate; the agonizing journey of disintegration and reconstruction that a person goes through when he is broken emotionally, physically and psychologically. Takeo lives a solitary existence, and spends his days replaying and pondering over his childhood and experiences – personal disappointments and triumphs. He faces an existential crisis and tries to derive life philosophies out of all that he has experienced.

The house serves as an allegorical representation of Takeo himself. Its foundations are crumbling, its on the verges of collapse and in dire need for renovation. While the house’s ramshackled condition reflects Takeo’s broken down self, its resilience also gives him hope and inspiration.

“I noticed the breaks in the windows again, how damaged the place was. I wondered just how many quakes it had seen, and yet it was standing. Bent at the knees but standing.”

Takeo takes it upon himself to repair the house, in the process endeavouring to fix himself too. As he plunges deeper into his depression, he in engulfed by melancholy and Joso does a commendable job of articulately expressing what depression feels like. He is in a perpetual state of stupor, he loses his appetite and his grasp on reality becomes increasingly tenuous.

In the beginning, Takeo tries to battle his blues and strives to keep negative thoughts at bay. However, soon enough he drowns under the weight of his sorrow and succumbs to depression. Joso captures this act of surrender viscerally:

“Terrifying thoughts soon plagued my head, awake as in sleep. Gnawing away at every part of me. Chomping, pecking, biting. Grinding up my soul. And the sounds, the sounds … still they made their prey of me. So go ahead! Gnaw away, grind up my soul, tear my senses from the tree, and soon I will be done with! But let it be over. “

Takeo goes into an involuntary state of hibernation. He becomes increasingly delirious as he runs out of his stock of rice and has to go without food for many days at a stretch. He sees strange things in these illusive states : a temple and a shape shifter (yokai), which he can’t figure out whether they are real or just figments of his imagination.

“As for dreaming, the lack of clarity at moments; the slight, unsteady grip of reality, perhaps it is not the meagre diet that causes these symptoms, but just my state of mind, some strange internal cause, and like a machine, in some automatic way, I am generating stress, hallucinating some phantom condition. My mind, cranking things up in just the wrong way, making the body sick, perhaps for lack of stimulus? If this is this case I had better keep myself busy for longer, my mind distracted that it cannot fret or idle too long and conjure things which are not there and so insidiously steal my health. “

As he starts losing strength, he becomes aware of another human presence. This presence simultaneously soothes him and puts him on guard ; eventually sustaining him as he becomes weaker and more vulnerable.

The book, set against the backdrop of a financial crisis, contemplates the fickleness of the physical world, with its flimsy relationships and deceptive allure of material possessions. We find out that Takeo’s gambling addiction began as a desperate attempt to channel his pent-up frustration as a corporate slave. “I never cared about the money, but the gambling gave me a buzz. Something I never got from my job. All the bank ever did was chew up my soul. “

The prose is limpid yet poetic. Joso switches from clipped sentences to longer, more symbolic ones, mirroring Takeo’s conflicted, nebulous mind. One of the major pitfall of having a protagonist with a mental disorder is a self-involved narrative which ends up coming off as monotonous. But My Falling Down House is salvaged by its compact prose and precise narration.

The protagonist attempts at shunning his humanness and his desperation to somehow be one with nature reminded of The Vegetarian where Yeong-hye tries to break free of her mental anguish by forsaking food and retreating into herself. In the Afterword, the writer reveals that Kobo Abe’s The Box Man was the inspiration for this novel which is apparent by her protagonist’s abandonment of a conventional way of living and his earlier experiences of living in a box. My Falling Down House is a surreal, inventive piece of writing which has something to say about the nature of humanity and identity.

Review by Anne Janowitz, Emerita Professor, Dept of English, Queen Mary University of London

Friday, October 14, 2016

Jayne Joso’s third novel, My Falling Down House, is a perfectly shaped 21st century narrative. She tells a story informed both by her experiences in Japan and in the world of architecture and as she had in her previous novels, Joso shows a remarkably agile and adventurous approach to what the novel as a form can be and do. She has, as she says in her excellent afterword, entered ‘the skin of a man, a Japanese man. I shiver myself inside him, I empty my mind to occupy his. . . I take his shape and the shapes of his thoughts as though I am a yokai (a shapeshifter).”  And his mind occupies Joso’s.  The result is a mysterious, moving, transformational, painful and delightful rendering of how a person comes to find out why they are doing what they do, and how that can turn into a fulfillment both transcendental and truly grounded, simple and sharply complex.   The novel is without frontiers even as it is enacted within one decaying house in Tokyo. Joso’s occupation of Takeo’s mind allows her to inhabit the sensibility of Japan today, which in the movements of the novel is felt as ‘now’ and ‘here’ and simultaneously, as a ‘forgotten way of living.’  Takeo’s fears and dreams become ours, as readers, and I felt as if I were really sharing the experience of what it is to be a “Japanese Man.”  My Falling Down House is a masterpiece, a perfect dwelling place for us to learn what matters to Takeo and to the novelist who has brought him to us.

Review by Rachel Carney, Created to Read

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

My Falling Down House is a philosophical portrayal of what it means to be reduced to nothing, to become a nobody, to fall to the very bottom of reality and to question what it is to be human. The book transports the reader to Tokyo and a young man named Takeo Tanaka, former employee of a company hit by the financial crisis. He loses his job, his girlfriend and his home in quick succession. Having lost everything, he moves into a frail, abandoned house, made entirely of wood and paper, and attempts a total withdrawal from society.   

Joso takes the reader on a journey inside the mind of Takeo Tanaka. We hear his thoughts, and begin to align ourselves with his view of things – a young man trespassing in a falling down house. The house acts as a kind of cocoon, providing protection from the world outside. It is also a metaphor for Takeo himself. The house is broken, falling down, full of cracks. Takeo is also broken, and his grasp on reality is gradually breaking down further. He is drawn to this house partly because it is safe and empty – a refuge from the world:

“I lay back down and felt the sun pour over me, a yellow rain, and with it a wonderful heat. So intense I wanted to make a blanket of it, pull it around me, and curl up inside. And I wanted to lie there that way a good long while, nothing but nothing in my head.”

To begin with, Takeo is at peace, happy to co-exist with Cat and Cello (who take on personalities of their own) and excited to create his own paper prototypes (fragile miniature dwellings made from cardboard boxes). But gradually a lack of nourishment leads to a physical breakdown. Takeo’s mind deceives him, as he becomes unable to discern between reality and imagination. He grows more and more afraid of discovery, realising that nourishment is what he really needs, yet unable to motivate himself to find it.

The novel explores the notion of self. What happens when someone’s whole world implodes, and all that is left is the physical body and the complexities of the human mind? Does this kind of trauma produce change in a person, or an entirely new identity?

Takeo eventually senses another presence in the house, invading his space. He cannot tell if this is a person or a spirit, conjured by his own mind. He fears human contact, and is both suspicious and full of hope. Then the presence becomes real and he begins to recover. But who has he become? And will he ever be able to step outside again?

My Falling Down House is written in a clipped concise prose that seems resonant of Takeo himself, occasionally mixed with a more colloquial phrase. It is addictive, leading you desperately from one page to the next, searching for the solution, along with Takeo, to the problematic situation in which he finds himself. But it is also frustrating, as Takeo denies himself the very things he needs, hungry and weak, unable to focus on reality. It is a strange, slightly stressful but intriguing narrative, exploring, in an elaborate and beautiful way, what happens to a person when everything they relied upon is lost. It does require patience, but is well worth persevering. I don’t recommend reading it whilst hungry.

Joso explains in the Afterword that she was inspired to write My Falling Down House by reading Kobo Abe’s The Box Man, as well as her personal experience of living in Japan. It is an attempt, she explains, to explore Japanese identity at a time when the country seems to be recovering from the trauma and change of recent years. But it is universal in its exploration of what it means to be human and how we make sense of ourselves.

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Review by New Welsh Review

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Disturbance is a precisely constructed, unflinchingly observant, heartbreaking and terrifying novel of poems, a powerfully delivered and devastating firestorm of words. It portrays the build-up to and fallout from the murderous and suicidal conclusion to family life. This family has been bruised by domestic abuse, broken by divorce and ultimately obliterated by the words ‘you can’t keep my children from me... they’re mine’.

Beginning at the inquest into these tragic central events, Ivy Alvarez presents a story told in non-chronological kaleidoscopic fragments of minute detail and raw emotion. These include an emergency services operator helplessly hearing screams and shotgun blasts down the telephone line; a grandmother thinking of buying a carpet to cover bloodstains; the mistress of the murderer suffering scapegoat-hungry media coverage; Jane, scrabbling in vain to hide from a long feared fate, and Tony, a violent control freak, blaming his victims for his actions.

Over the course of forty-four poems, the reader is taken forwards and backwards in time, each poem helping to construct the wider story and often simultaneously offering a snapshot portrait of the principal character in their own words. This results in a provocative array of stylistic approaches, including a dark appropriation of the Ladybird Readers: 'See Jane run. Watch Dick run. Watch Dick chase Jane. Watch Dick chase / Jane through their house. Dick has a gun. Run Jane run.'

Within this 'verse novel', Alvarez shows admirable artistic control and a remarkable capacity for empathy. She has crafted a range of voices that, even in the briefest of appearances, reveal another facet of the wider narrative and another example of just how far the hurtful consequences of terrible acts can travel. Telling the story in verse form creates just enough distance to prevent Disturbance becoming too emotionally overwhelming to read. This method also reveals a terrible beauty within the blackest shadows of human experience.

Disturbance is a fully ‘adult’ book which may require some readers to look themselves in the eye and ask if they would have acted differently from the neighbour who didn’t want to get involved or the policemen who didn’t rush towards the sound of a shot. So authentically self-protective are some of the characters that a childlike feeling can descend on the reader seeking the need for a hero.

Among the visceral responses Disturbance provokes is a sense of helplessness. In this harsh reality, apparently definitive signs of a tragedy waiting to happen become visible only in hindsight. Wisely, then, Alvarez does not seek the moral high ground of pointing out what people should have done or said. Rather, we are offered authentically painted human responses to the kind of events most of us will be lucky enough never to be caught up in. Alvarez does not seek to suggest how to prevent these kind of horrors. As comforting as it might be to tell ourselves otherwise, such terrible acts occur because one person chooses to commit them. Tony’s choice is his alone, whatever means he uses to justifying himself:

Better to be a brute
than be far less.

So common is the real-life scenario of a divorced father saying ‘You can’t keep my children from me’ that Disturbance could be justified solely as a humane parable and warning about the dark places such a statement may lead. But the skill and imagination with which Alvarez approaches her subject matter from so many perspectives also makes the book an adventure for the mind. This is achieved without ever engendering the feeling that it is exploitative of suffering, and Alvarez leaves plenty of room for readers to bring their own imaginations into play.

Each reader will have their own individual response, just as Alvarez’ characters react individually to these terrible events. The timeless value of storytelling is that it can transport us into the lives, experiences and minds of others, and hold up a mirror to our assumptions and moral certainties. Alvarez has taken a long, courageous look into such a mirror. The reflection we see may bring us close to weeping for humanity. But not to giving up on it.

– Will Ford, New Welsh Review
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09/12/2013 - 13:53
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Review from Cordite

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Disturbance is Ivy Alvarez’s second collection of poetry. Its dedication to Dorothy Porter, Ai and Gwen Harwood is not at all surprising given that, Alvarez’s poems are comparably unflinching, unsettling and precise, exposing the horrors of family violence with an artistry that is always in the service of its compassion. Furthering the link with Porter’s work, it is also a verse novel, but a relatively unconventional one. Rather than following a linear progression, Disturbance throws us immediately into atrocity and its aftermath – the murder of a mother and a son by the father, who takes his own life, leaving a daughter alive. Each poem that follows is a fragment, retrospective and prospective, accumulating a picture of what we want to know but feel disturbed to approach – how did this happen?

When I began reading it, I assumed that the story at the heart of the book was fictional, a composite of many cases synthesised from research. Subsequently, I began to wonder how ‘real’ the poems were; in a way, attempting to measure the gap between poem and reality, I was reaching for the real, yearning for it. But Alvarez notes that Disturbance is ‘an imaginative retelling of and a response to actual events’. Like an exhibition of documentary photography, it presents framed yet incomplete impressions from particular perspectives, which confront us with the existence of the real while acknowledging the gap between an account and its source.

The book is both kaleidoscopic and choral. We are presented with the thoughts and memories of the mother, Jane; the police officers, in their enculturated impotence; the journalists, with their condensations and abstraction; and the son and daughter, with their confusion, bravery and cornered-ness. While the poet’s own aesthetic temperament gives them a certain consistency, each of these character voices is distinct and convincing. The grammar, vocabulary, emotional tone, punctuation and lineation, are all finely attuned to reflect their individual posture and energy. Yet the music of the poems is subtle and unobtrusive; Alvarez doesn’t want anything to overshadow what is being exposed and examined. Sentences are generally complete and naturalistic, a fusion of the mundane and the metaphoric, of the composed and the chaotic, which is quietly chilling:

My dinner rests warm in my belly.
I’ve just come in for my shift.
Familiar smell of old coffee,
stale sweat accumulates,
hovers near the ceiling.

‘What is the nature
of your emergency?’
wears my voice.

But then she speaks.
I type quickly. I press buttons.

‘What is your address?’
The pads of my fingers prickle,
become slick. Keys slip beneath my skin. (‘Operator’)

Appropriately, there are also occasions where the language itself breaks down or fragments. Here, the poetry draws on an almost risky knowingness and wit, but it never loses its focus and visceral impact, as in ‘The Detective Inspector II’, which begins ‘ – eyes make/in/cre/mental/adjustments/in the dark’. Or, in ‘Hannah’s Statement’, where the breath catches and is held in white space:

once after my brother ran
he placed my hand on his heart

Alvarez’s language is most chaotic and unmoored when we hear from Tony, the father, whose ‘own hands must do something’. His confusion and possessiveness seem fuelled by a profound detachment – of his self from his body and from others. If there is any summary of his motivation to be found, Alvarez provides it negatively, as Tony states: ‘there is no explanation for me’; ‘Real things seem untouchable to me’; ‘I pass for someone ordinary/someone who looks like me’ (‘Tony’). Near the end of the book, we spend quite some time in his mind, which is populated by familiar and archetypal metaphors of ‘red’, ‘hunting’ and ‘dark’, yet also with surreal and unexpected images, such as ‘dust that skims/across your eyeballs’, ‘the subdermal itch’, ‘rank/bin juice’, and an account of the aerodynamics of golf balls. These bring us closer to a kind of visceral intimacy, rather than understanding.

The one poem which I am still ambivalent about is ‘See Jane Run’. Here, the central murderous event of the book is depicted through the truncated sentences and simple language of the iconic children’s characters, Dick and Jane. While only two-thirds of a page and in short paragraphs, this prose-poem seems to be Alvarez’s way of conveying, through parody, the unconveyable horror. It’s an undeniably affecting poem, but one that I am not drawn to read again.

By contrast, ‘Disturbance’ compellingly revolves around a black hole at its core – the mundanity of evil and the seeming inevitability of violence. And the short poem that opens the book, ‘Inquest’ signals silence as a response to inexplicability:

Members of the family wept
as the coroner read out
her pleas for help.

Nothing softened as they cried.
The wood in the room stayed hard
and square.

The windows clear.
The stenographer impassive.
The spider under the bench
intent on its fly.

I say ‘seeming inevitability’, because while there is an echo of a kind of ‘natural’ hunter and prey in the poem’s chilling conclusion, and while the wood stays ‘hard/and square’, the reader is constantly drawn into a state of empathy and resistance. These events, condensed into black text with such articulate and meticulous white space around them, are given to us in all their horror as artefacts, made things, which can conceivably be unmade. It is Alvarez’s great talent to frustrate us, to refuse to provide easy explanations. The only possible response is outside the book.

– Andy Jackson

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09/09/2014 - 11:44
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