Catherine Hanrahan’s debut novel Lost Girls and Love Hotels is the story of a stranger in a strange land. The stranger is Margaret, a young woman who teaches English (or English pronounciation) in a stewardess school and the strange land is Japan.

On surface this could be the story of any 20-something searching for identity, salving old wounds with sex and drugs. Dig a little deeper, however, and you see that there is much more than meets the eye. Like most young women who have absent fathers, distracted mothers, and emotionally disturbed siblings, Margaret thinks she is running away, but what she really is doing is finding a way to save herself, looking for love (albeit in all the wrong places), and soothing herself with drugs and sex. She is, after all, still trapped in childhood; an adult who still sucks her thumb in order to fall asleep.

When Margaret’s lover, Kazu, asks her why she came to Japan, Margaret responds, “To be alone.” Of course, he finds this response odd, and so she follows up with, “It’s an easy place to be alone.”

Is this book specifically about life in Japan? Could it not have been set anywhere? I would argue the latter, as it seems to me the message is universal. Anyone who has ever felt as though she were running away, will see herself in this book. Anyone who has lived on an edge waiting for death, will also. And those who have been lost and found–those who have lived despite all of the odds against them (instead of being the unfortunates whose remains are later found), will find the ending triumphant.

In a way, life in Japan destroys Margaret (and almost kills her) and as such, it allows her to be reborn:

I stand like a planet, the constellation of seeds radiating from me, spilling from my pockets. I see, as if for the first time, the quality of the air. Bluish light filtered through it. The sun, like a yolk hanging languorously behind the trees. The air with its giddy bite of anticipation. I breathe it in like anesthesia, but it doesn’t put me to sleep. It wakes me up.

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