How can you not love a novel with a gang of delightful and righteous killer cats? And, it's narrated partly in the second person like one of those old choose-your-own-adventure novels. Narration using you usually seems like such a gimmick, a forced smart pose. But here, the chapters feel natural; the second person tone is relaxed and just contributes a slight edge to let us know this novel will be unpredictable, difficult to pin down. You re scared, but you want this to happen, writes Allen. You want something to happen. You want this to be over so you can go back to your regular life of being annoyed by Boy.
The novel s protagonist you falls in with a ragtag gang of five pirates, who spend much of the novel trying to find a boat so they can get back to a life on the high seas. The pirates are named for their main qualities the captain, the drunk, the driver, the engineer, and Muffin. Allen has a knack for nailing characters with deceptively-simple descriptions: The driver wonders how Salaryman always manages to sound like he s casually inspecting his fingernails.
Allen's novel challenges two frequent assumptions about CanLit. First, that it has to be serious, that it has to feel good for you. The book is an entertaining, joyous, daredevil leap. Without becoming anything like a genre novel, You and the Pirates plays with chicklit expectations: a whimsical female narrator, unwilling to marry her lackluster boyfriend; and thriller/action stylings: pirates, a stolen boat, a conspiracy that threatens the universe as we know it.
And the second assumption Allen challenges? That CanLit needs to be set in Canada. You and the Pirates is set in a slightly-parallel-universe contemporary Japan. Allen brings us the believable grit of a real city, not pretty, not perfectly designed: They obstacle-course their way around the cat-scaring water bottles, a non-scared cat, varying piles of garbage and a rusting miniature shopping cart in the alley. William Gibson would feel at home here, though he d have more techie stuff (although Allen can t resist a boyfriend-bot). Allen comes by her exotic locations honestly: she spent a decade living as a gaijin in Tokyo, working as a translator, and the novel apparently started during her daily subway commute. She let her brain wander, and came up with this story of mysterious forces trying to change the direction of the universe.
But really the story is about finding your place in the world. Whether you re a pirate who has lost your ship, or a woman who keeps getting in the way of terrorist attacks. You and the Pirates perfectly expresses the one thing that consistently thrills me about CanLit so much of what we re writing these days is about the struggle to find our place in a world where the only really consistent quality to our lives is change. How do you figure out how to be the person you re supposed to be? You and the Pirates offers a completely unexpected answer. --Lisa Pasold, The Afterword
You and the Pirates is set in Japan and as I was about to travel there, I was very excited. I was assured by the publishers that Allen's version of Japan was fictionalized, and I might not see many similarities, but I ended up seeing many. One of the characters is nicknamed Salaryman, and it turned out that salaryman is an actual term the Japanese use (basically a corporate business man in a suit). Allen's army of cats reminded me of all the maneki nekos I saw there (Japanese cat sculptures). Another character nicknamed Lolita shows off a very common fashion trend in Japan known as, what else, Lolita fashion.
But all the Japanese culture wasn't the best part of the book...The best part of the book was the risks taken by Allen herself. The first part of the book is told in the second person (She smiles at you, gently, like you'd expect a lady in a kimono to.). I know Allen is not the first person to employ this perspective, but you have to admit, it's pretty rare, especially with Canadian novels. Allen pulled it off masterfully. My reservations that I could slip into the mind of a young female in Japan were gone by page 3...I found myself thinking of the old Choose Your Adventure childrens' book series. But without the choices at the end of every other page, I then began to think of old Bugs Bunny cartoons when the artists' eraser threatens to wipe him out unless he cooperates. Then with the zany plot involving explosions, armies of cats, people obsessed with changing up to left, hypno-travel, and of course, pirates, I found myself thinking of The Master and Margarita, The Matrix, manga comics, and Alice in Wonderland. I don't imply that Allen ripped off the ideas of others, but it should give you some sense of the book's feel. If you said bizarre, you'd not be far off the mark. --John Mutford, The Book Mine Set
About the Author
Jocelyne Allen is a Japanese translator based in Toronto after a decade in Japan. During her time in the Land of the Rising Sun, she worked as an unwitting erotic magazine columnist, interpreted for foreign correspondents and toured with a Japanese drum group. This is her first novel.