Sea of Trees — Robert James Russell
At the start of the story, American college student Bill and his Japanese girlfriend Junko have ventured into the Japanese forest Aokigahara, which lies at the northwest base of Mount Fuji. But this isn’t any ordinary forest. Amidst the silence of the trees, people go to end their lives, leaving behind notes, belongings and their sorrows.
Bill’s reason for traveling to this silent graveyard is only slightly less macabre. The couple may not have hiked into Aokigahara for the purpose of committing suicide, but they are on a search for some sort of sign or remnant from Junko’s sister Izumi, who disappeared within the forest a year prior. As they make their way further into the maze of trees, Junko becomes increasingly single-minded in her search for clues, ignoring Bill’s warnings that they should head back. Soon enough, light starts to fade into night.
Vivid descriptions set the scene for this haunting trek, but it’s the relationship between Bill and Junko that is perhaps the most compelling. It is obvious that Bill loves her, from her beautiful eyes to her khaki shorts and bulky hiking boots. But as the journey wears on, their relationship becomes increasingly strained. What is Junko hiding in the backpack she so desperately clings to? Does Bill really know her? The answer is no, of course not. Six months isn’t long enough to truly know someone. Sometimes a lifetime isn’t enough.
While the story primarily follows Bill and Junko’s dark journey, each alternating chapter tells the tale of others who also said goodbye within the canopy of leaves. The profound and tangible nature of each vignette left me with a sense of loss, driving me to question cultural differences, as well the similarities.
My intellectual breath was taken away by the spell that Russell created in his debut novel. He has a beautiful literary mind, one that I was happily able to pick for a Q&A, which I will be posting shortly. I believe great things will come from him in the future. Until then, read Sea of Trees, a stunning work of art. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Found for $12.99 in paperback at Amazon; and for $6.99 on the Kindle.