In this novel we are given an example of stark storytelling at it's best. You'll find none of the oft praised lyricism or deftly crafted (i.e. overwrought) literary allusions commonly employed by many writers. Instead, you are given a straightforward, dare I even say simple, account. The result may surprise some readers: power.
The emotions felt by the reader are a testament to Yoshimura's craft. He does not try to sway your feelings, but convincingly commands you to experience the story the way he wants you too. The prose itself is a bit of a paradox. I doubt the prose garnered any attention (in Japanese or English) for it's 'colorful brilliance' and yet, it is that lack of manufactured affectedness that is so often lauded and sought out in today's literature that makes Shipwrecks such a force to read. The nature of the prose is directly related to one of the major themes of the story: depravity. There is enough of all that is base and vile in human beings here to make Dostoevsky call shenanigans.
A small Japanese fishing village is incessantly teetering on the brink of starvation. This harsh reality has breed a very harsh people. Elderly and the sick are seen as mouths to feed that can make no contribution to the working healthy, and babies are mixed blessing for the same reason. Those in the prime of their life subject themselves to the hardest of work in the most difficult of conditions.
To alleviate some of the hardship--and free up on portion of food at every meal--selling family members into indentured servitude has become a viable option for many. The family can reap the monetary benefits right away, and the life of the servant is equally difficult work as life at home, or marginally harder, with better living conditions and a guarantee of regular meals.
Isaku's father has just sold himself for three years bringing his family a very large sum for so short a time. This leaves Isaku, at the age of nine, to look after his two younger sisters, one younger brother and mother. The story is of survival and of Isaku's hyper-accelerated coming of age. Making salt on the beaches to sell in the spring is a communal village custom. An extra added bonus is the occasional ship that the fires under the salt cauldrons lure into the reef in front the of the village's bay during rough weather.
The villagers treatment of a wrecked ship is reminiscent of American Indians collecting their prize on a buffalo hunt, nothing is wasted. The shipwrecks are a blessing that the villagers pray for. They look forward to the plunder, the luxuries, the huge quantity of bales of rich that a ship may have and never even acknowledge amorality of what they do.
As far as the plot goes, I haven't said anything you couldn't read on the back of the book, and there too ends the intrigue. What drives the book forward in the increasing sense of necessary moral depravity. The village occasionally lives under the threat of reprimand but not so much that they would change their ways. We are shown three years of Isaku's difficult, repetitious, not always bountiful life, and amongst the difficulty we find ourselves truly sympathizing with the lot this village has to endure. For me, there were no 'two sides of the equation.' There is no moral ambiguity to speak of as the loss of life and theft that a shipwreck brings is seen as a means of survival.
Through all of the novel's wonderfully blunt presentation it is very hard to put a finger on what propels the narrative forward but events are shaped by looming return of Isaku's father and what will be the state of the people he returns home to. A turn of events comes as the people's nature eventually comes to haunt them and all of their subtle deception and fraud amount to nothing. To say more would be to spoil a very delicate story. I encourage all to read the book and not plot summaries.
If I don't come across a more poignant work all year, I won't be surprised. I'm close to swearing off works longer than three hundred pages, as my favorite three books of the past three months have all clocked in well under that mark. Shipwrecks was a whopping one hundred eighty pages. The impact after so short a book is phenomenal. It is an alien world that feels familiar by the bounds of humanity. This is a book you talk about long after reading.