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Originally published Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Tokyo Fiancée" is a wacky cultural romp

"Tokyo Fiancée" by Belgian novelist Amélie Nothomb is a light but wicked tale of language barriers and cultural misunderstanding, set in 1989 Tokyo.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Tokyo Fiancée"

by Amélie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson

Europa Editions, 152 pp., $15

Soufflé-light yet scalpel-sharp, this tale of the pitfalls of language barriers and the pleasures of culture shock is a page-turning treat.

Its narrator, Amélie, is a young Belgian who moves to Tokyo in 1989. There, she starts teaching French to Rinri, a young man from a wealthy background.

Romance, misunderstanding and wacky insight ensue.

Amélie — like the novel's author — was born in Japan, spent her early childhood there and thinks of herself as more than just a Japanophile. She's certain that, in essential ways, she is Japanese — at least more so than any other Westerners she encounters.

Her pupil Rinri is a different story, starting with his fondness for Swiss-cheese fondue and gooey Western pasta dishes. Still, for Amélie he poses something of a mystery. Is his father a gangster? Are his cackling grandparents not quite right in the head? Do any of them really know where Belgium is? And what does Rinri mean when he says that his favorite thing in life is "playing"?

Nothomb has covered similar ground in similar ways before, notably in "Fear and Trembling" (about a young Belgian named Amélie getting in over her head at a Japanese corporation). Yet "Tokyo Fiancée" feels as fresh and capricious as if this were Nothomb's first venture into this territory. It gets especially funny and complicated when the two lovers start invoking putative cultural traditions of their countries as they attempt to set the terms for their erotic exchange. Rinri's fondness for whisking Amélie off on mystery expeditions adds to the book's feathery suspense.

This swift read, niftily translated by Alison Anderson, goes surprisingly deep as it weighs what we can or can't know about ourselves and about people from other cultures.

Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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