Book Review by Suzanne Kamata
Title: Life is Elsewhere/Burn Your Flags
Author: Iain Maloney
Publisher: Liminal Ink
Considering the amount time that it takes to mull over an idea, digest it, and then write a work of fiction, and the glacial pace of publishing, it seems incredible that novels set during the current COVID-19 pandemic are already in print. Then again, orders to stay home and widespread cancellation of events have given many authors unprecedented time for reflection and writing of short stories, novellas, and even novels. One such novella is the intriguing Life is Elsewhere/Burn Your Flags by long-term Japan resident Iain Maloney.
The story takes place on Christmas Day in 2020, several months into the pandemic, and a few months after the ban on re-entry of foreign residents was lifted. Cormac, a forty-year-old Irish bar owner, has just returned from a visit to his sister in Dublin. His wife, Eri, is worried about judgmental neighbors. She tells him not to tell anyone where he’s been. This deliberate withholding of information hints at one of the themes of the book: Cormac and his wife suffer from a lack of communication. Finding themselves in close proximity for days on end, they can’t seem to get along. They may well be on the cusp of a COVID divorce.
The novella is divided into two sections. The first is told from Cormac’s point-of-view, as he goes on a hike alone while awaiting the results of a medical test. Present concerns mingle with memories of a friend lost to a drug addiction in a country that considers it a crime (“Japan doesn’t do rehab, it just does jail”), riffs on Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask and veiled women in Muslim countries, along with composed-on-the-spot haiku. In the second half, Eri, who is now the seemingly conventional owner of a language school, thinks back on her days as a fifteen-year-old high school dropout living with the punk rock band ‘Burn Your Flags’, and filming their exploits. As an act of rebellion, the band members wore their shoes inside their apartment. Earlier, Cormac tries to jolly Eri out of her midlife crisis, saying, ‘Yoko Ono is eighty-five and is still punk. You’re still punk.” But it’s not enough to dispel her malaise.
The publisher’s name is Liminal Ink Press, which seems particularly apt; Maloney’s novella perfectly captures this liminal space we’ve all been in. These characters are in-between, and the outcome of their stories is indefinite. Will Cormac get a clean bill of health? Will the couple stay together? Will the pandemic ever end? We don’t know. When the future is so uncertain, there is nothing to do but return to the past.
Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.
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