Snakes and Earrings references the body piercing that the main characters, Lui, and her boyfriend Ama, revel in. Ama has his tongue split, like a snake, when he meets Lui for the first time and she immediately decides she’d like to do the same to her own tongue. The method includes piercing and then stretching the size of the hole with larger and larger rings, until the last bit of tongue towards the tip and can be split. As Snakes and Earrings is a rather mild means of expressing that process, the result of which is meant to shock, so too is the novel Snakes and Earrings, in regards to the story Hitomi Kanehara seems to want to tell.
Lui is a nineteen year old, who has nothing going in her life to prohibit her from moving right in with Ama shortly after meeting him, even after watching him beat a man to death after a night out at the bar. When she needs money, she works for an escort service, and is regarded rather highly as she flouts nearly every rule the company has yet is still welcomed back time and time again. Ama, while sporting red hair, tattoos, earrings, and a forked tongue, is more than happy to settle down and live the life of a married couple, though his immaturity comes through as the reader watches their very stilted relationship of sex and eating and nothing else.
Not long after settling in with Ama, Lui begins to cheat on him with Shiba, the guy who pierces her tongue for her and creates a huge tattoo for her back. With him she seems to have even less of a relationship. While she doesn’t tell him of Ama’s killing another man, there are signs that he’s aware. His interest in Lui stems mainly from the fact that she is a fairly willing masochist.
While this is beginning to sound somewhere between a nighttime soap opera and a woe is my young life series, Kanehara does do a decent job of infusing enough emotion into Lui to avoid the detached youth cliché. However, there is a lack of depth to the story that surprises one when the book arrives touted as an international bestseller, the author, the youngest ever winner of the Akutagawa Prize, and the book a Borders Original Voices selection. The book isn’t bad by a long shot, Kanehara creates fairly interesting characters and when she has something to tell about them, writes very well. It’s just that with only 120 pages, she has less to say than I had hoped for.