Japanese author, Kenjiro Haitani, shows readers how teachers can be just as fragile as their students in “A Rabbit’s Eyes,” translated by Paul Sminkey.
Things can’t get much worse for Ms. Fumi Kotani as she starts her teaching career. Her students are easily distracted, squishing frogs during science class, and her marriage is far from perfect. It seems to be much more than the newly-minted teacher can handle until she begins taking an interest in her teacher-scratching, fly-collecting student, Tetsuzo.
The boy, who does not speak except for the occasional grunt, is the sort of student that makes teachers fret. At the urging of another teacher Kotani decides that discovering Tetsuzo’s potential will be her project. Over the course of the novel, interacting with the boy helps Kotani discover how to help her students and, along the way, herself.
The characters’ interactions draw the reader into this relatively simple story. The decrepit, ashen gray landscape of the disposal plant near the children’s school serves as a foil to the vibrancy of the characters that Haitani brings to life. Against the dull background, they cannot help but shine.
While other authors may thrust the whole character into view within the first few pages, Haitani leaves character traits like treasures for the reader to discover chapter by chapter. The immediate spotlight is saved for those supporting characters like the Humble Samurai, a vagrant who speaks as though he stepped out of a Shakespeare play, or an especially challenging but charming student named Minako. It is these minor characters that make Haitani’s novel jump from interesting to endearing.
While the characters stand out sharply and charm the reader into continuing on, readers may find Haitani’s book to be missing one of the basic building blocks of a novel. There’s no easily identified conflict to keep the plot moving. Kotani’s struggle to learn and help her gifted student, Tetsuzo, spans the course of the novel and helps both characters learn, but the focus gets watered down in the politics of elementary schools and in details of the home lives of other students.
Haitani’s novel holds a tendency to find rabbit trails in the actions of the characters. Readers may find their attention diverted from the important action in order to observe the situation of the students as a whole. When the trail is finished and Haitani brings the reader back to the action at hand, it may be difficult to remember what was going on before the diversion. It is not until the final chapters of the novel that a tangible and easily identifiable conflict emerges from the series of vignette-like sections.
Despite its flaws, “A Rabbit’s Eyes” proves especially meaningful as it examines how a teacher can produce a positive effect in a student’s life. It is not the harsh classroom moments that help Kotani’s students learn, but rather the quiet moments spent examining flies or painting lunch carts that help her students’ potential bloom.
If readers can push past the first chapter, putting Haitani’s novel down will prove an enjoyable challenge.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Ana Faria at Ana.firstname.lastname@example.org.