I didn’t realize until the end that Scattered All Over the Earth is the first volume of a trilogy, but now I am very excited at the prospect of seeing where the story will go next and what the structure of the next two books will be. This one is told in alternating first-person narration by six different characters: two characters (Knut and Hiruko) get three chapters each; the others (Akash, Nora, Tenzo, and Susanoo) get one chapter each.

The book starts with Knut, who we learn is a Dane interested in linguistics. He’s watching a local news show where a moderator speaks to a series of “people whose countries no longer exist” (e.g. the former Yugoslavia) when someone on the show catches his attention. There’s a woman “from an archipelago somewhere between China and Polynesia, she’d come as a foreign student, planning to stay for just a year but then a couple of months before she was supposed to go home, her country disappeared.” What interests him is less the mystery of the disappearance of the woman’s country than “the language she was speaking,” which he understands, but can’t place. The moderator asks about the language too and the woman, Hiruko, explains how she came up with it after moving from Sweden to Norway to Denmark: “no time to learn three different languages. might mix up. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language most scandinavian people understand.” Knut is so excited he phones the TV station to ask if Hiruko will agree to meet him. She agrees, but she doesn’t really have time: she’s going to an umami festival in Trier the next day, hoping to meet someone there who is from her country and speaks her native language.

After they have dinner together, Knut ends up going to Trier too, which is where they start to meet the rest of our narrators. Akash is an Indian trans woman studying in Trier (who is frustratingly misgendered by all the other characters); Nora is actually the organizer of the umami festival, at which Tenzo, who’s meant to be on his way back from Norway, is meant to be teaching people how to make dashi. Susanoo, who comes later, is another person from what the book calls “the land of sushi.”

I don’t want to say too much about the various plot twists, some of which are surprises and some of which are telegraphed quite clearly in the book (which has a Shakespearean sort of feel in that way, that sense of a comedy of miscommunication and mistaken identity that we know will get untangled in the end, where we know the truth about some things before some of the characters do). But I found the plot to be a delight, and there is so much good stuff about language and culture and identity, too. I expect my enjoyment would have been even greater if I had been familiar ahead of time with Japanese fairy tales like the one about Urashima Tarō. This also definitely makes me want to read more by Tawada: I’ve been aware of her since I heard about The Memoirs of a Polar Bear in 2017, but I hadn’t actually read anything by her until this.

Side note, I love this, which Hiruko ponders at her job helping “immigrant children to learn about Europe through fairy tales”: first she thinks about how “drawing isn’t an everyday thing here the way writing is” and then there’s this: “Europeans must think of handwriting and drawing as two completely separate things. If not, why are they so ashamed of a lousy picture when their terrible handwriting doesn’t bother them at all?” I also love this, when Akash is thinking about Germans and walking: “My German friends all love to go for a walk and often ask me to come along. Not just for fifteen or twenty minutes, either. They’ll keep going for an hour at least, and in good weather as long as two without a rest. What’s more, about forty minutes into our walk a friend will finally open his heart to me and confess, “I broke up with my girlfriend”: without strong legs, you can’t even make friends in this country.”

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