There’s something about immersing yourself in another language and culture that always brings romantic imaginings to the fore. I’m sure many of us have dreamt of jetting off to foreign climes and experiencing a new life in a new world, feeling that every day is going to be a new adventure. In Fifty Sounds we, the readers, are taken on just such an experience, although with the more realistic viewpoint of Polly Barton who did just this, travelling to Japan at the age of twenty-one to learn Japanese and experience the culture.
Fifty Sounds is the debut novel by Polly Barton and follows her time spent in various parts of Japan after her time studying philosophy at Cambridge, and it is this appreciation of philosophy that underpins many parts and aspects of the book, frequently referring to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Language Games from his work Philosophical Investigations. This provides many of the aspects of this book with a level of added depth to what Barton is portraying, although giving some parts of the book a more ‘clinical’ feel which removes the reader, and the author, from the narrative.
Fifty Sounds very smartly links Barton’s biographical novel with fifty Japanese sounds, for example, “pika-pika: the sound of my floors and your trainers and our graveyards” which refers to shiny, or sparkling, but also describes the narrative of that particular chapter.
Although very much a biographical work, Fifty Sounds, provides a great deal of insight and wisdom into the experiences of someone immersed in a new culture and although I did feel the introduction and was a somewhat confusing start, combined with a somewhat unnecessary narrative that didn’t particularly appeal to myself, leaving me wondering where the book was going to take us there are some incredible moments of insight are the outstanding moments of this book, some of the descriptions and narratives within are simply superb, you’ll know what I mean when you read about the vending machines.
For a debut novel, in Fifty Sounds Polly Barton has brought a great achievement in combining language with biography and philosophy and I look forward to learning and reading what she has in store for future books. Her insight into Japan and her descriptive narrative would, to me, combine the best elements of travel writing and I sincerely hope that is an avenue to be explored.
Fifty Sounds is an ideal introduction for anyone looking to learn a language in another country and immerse themselves in the culture, with many looking to teach English in other countries, Fifty Sounds is an ideal way to learn the experiences of that path from someone who has such a wealth of experience as Polly Barton.
- Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99). To order a copy go to www.fitzcarraldoeditions.com
Founder and Editor of Pilgrim House, currently undertaking a research degree at Bangor University and working on a book on Folklore and early Welsh Christianity. Tom’s other work on music, poetry, health along other writings and images can be found at tomasstanger.com