Allison's Book Bag

Nobody Knows by Shelley Tanaka

Posted on: March 19, 2013

A little bit of research can go a long way towards shaping one’s impression of a book. An hour ago, I felt sick after reading Nobody Knows, a novelization by Shelley Tanaka of a Japanese film that is set in Tokyo. The story is so appalling that I never wanted to read anything again by the author. Now that I know the story is inspired by true events, I better understand why Tanaka made her choices and I would like to see the film. I still don’t care for the book.

At Writing With A Broken Tusk, Tanaka explains that each time she tried to expand upon the film it felt false and so finally decided if she could “transfer the film to the page, then the reader would bring the rest, the same way the viewer does to the film.” This was certainly true for me, due to the objectivity of the writing which held me at a distance from the characters. Only near the end, when the mom fails to return for Christmas and the unpaid bills increase, does Tanaka portray a little of the oldest boy’s desperation, at which point I finally began to feel an emotional connection with the children. There are authors who have helped me better understand poverty and abandonment, and even propelled me to take action, because they have elected to take me inside the head of at least their main character. Tanaka has not, which I think is a mistake.

However, I might have accepted Tanaka’s decision, if not for the conclusion. She asserts that Nobody Knows ends with hope because the children find a way to survive. However, I can’t fathom how a particularly shocking event in one chapter can be followed by the children smiling over a coin in the next. Because I couldn’t discern any definable passage of time, the conclusion left me sick in a disgusted way. Which isn’t good.

To be honest, I feel somewhat put out by the whole format of Nobody Knows. The publishers went so far as to include photos from the film, but there is no mention of the real case of child abandonment that inspired the film. Because I did my research, I can tell you that the mother eventually turned herself in , was indicted for child abandonment, and received a three-year sentence. But novels shouldn’t require research to be understood. And so until I knew that Nobody Knows was describing a real situation in Japan, it made me feel as I’d eaten some rotten candy. As some reviewers have pointed out, Nobody Knows might make for good discussion in a social justice class, but that’s the only value I can see for picking it up. And to me, that’s not a good enough reason.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

4 Responses to "Nobody Knows by Shelley Tanaka"

I had a similiar response to the book. It started off good but the further I advanced, the more I disliked it. I was especially turned off by the way the author glossed over the incident that you mentioned in your review.

Sorry for the delayed response! My husband and I finally watched the Japanese movie last night upon which the book Nobody Knows by Shelley Tanaka is based. My husband thought the movie well done. Despite its sad content, I also liked it much better than the book. The movie is over two hours and shows many small moments, which helped me feel empathy for the abandoned children and also admiration for how much they endured. There are two tragic incidents in the movie, both of which are shown to cause great pain–especially to the oldest boy who has been left in charge. I would highly recommend the movie to mature audiences.

This seems like an odd book, especially given the age range it’s supposedly intended for.

It’s only about one hundred pages and it has movie photographs. One would think it best for elementary, but the subject matter is too mature. Even in higher grades though, I can’t see students picking Nobody Knows up to read without a teacher directing them to it. So, yes, the book is an odd one.

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