Stories by Hiromi


A friend recommended The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami, and I liked it so much that I immediately read two other novels by this author: Strange Weather in Tokyo and Manazuru.

Nakano and Strange Weather are both comforting reads with characters who are each a tiny bit odd and awkward, at worst exasperating, but, by and large, quite inoffensive, even endearingly eccentric.

hiromi nakanoBoth novels are about unconventional love affairs. Hitomi, the narrator, in Nakano works at the thrift shop and is in love with Takeo, her fellow staff member. Both she and he are clueless as to how to handle their mutual attraction. At fifty-one I remain clueless as to how to handle any attraction to any man. Hitomi may be young, but I can fully relate to her inadequacies. Not only do I remember being the same way in my twenties, I realise I have become even more so in my fifties.

Aside from Hitomi and Takeo, there are Mr Nakano, the shop’s owner; and his sister Masayo. Nakano is sarcastic yet kindly. He likes to assume a world weary air, but is often as awkward as Hitomi. Although not particularly attractive and without any social graces, when we meet him, he is on his third marriage and has a radiantly beautiful mistress who owns an antiques store, much posher than his thrift shop. When Sakiko, the mistress, writes a pornographic novel, Mr Nakano is shocked and bewildered. He isn’t such a man of the world after all. And when Mr Nakano finds out that his sister has taken a lover, he pays Hitomi to question her. Naturally, Masayo, who is in her mid-fifties, is both amused and annoyed at being treated like a naive youngster.

hiromi strange weatherIn Strange Weather, the narrator re-connects, in her late thirties, with someone from her past — the man who once taught her in high school. I have my own hangups about older men so I wasn’t sure about the novel’s premise. However, this is not (thank goodness) the story of an old man recapturing his youth through sex with a much-younger woman. Neither is the narrator responding to daddy issues by fixating on an older man. This not a book about sex, but rather a book about friendship and respect and regard. I loved it and believe it will be a regular comfort read.

Manazuru I also enjoyed, and I shall definitely re-read it, but not for comfort. Manazuru is unsettling, even disturbing. In it, the protagonist, Kei, is a single mother. Her husband disappeared one day, quite out of the blue, or at least that’s what we are made to understand at first. However, as the story unfolds, we realise that Kei is not a reliable narrator. She seems to have forgotten the past, and Manazuru, a seaside village she is drawn to and keeps returning to, draws more and more of the past out of Kei.

What was most disturbing about this novel was that Kei hiromi manazurusometimes mentions being followed by … something. Sometimes she can tell its gender. Sometimes there are many of these ‘things’. One ‘woman’ follows more than the others. Is she (and the others) a ghost, or the ghost(s) of a memory/memories? Kei is matter of fact about these ‘hauntings’. Even when she is repulsed, she doesn’t react strongly to these things that follow her. There is a scene in which the ‘woman’ eats the food that Kei has ordered for dinner. The actual food remains, but the spirit or whatever it is, keeps reaching out for it, filling its mouth again and again. It made me quite sick to the stomach reading this. There is a lot of anxiety and lonely sadness portrayed in this novel. Uncomfortable, wretched feelings permeate its pages, but it is still a compelling read.

Nakano and Strange Weather were translated by Alison Markin Powell, while Manazuru was translated by Michael Emmerich. The storytelling is smoothly done, but there is the occasional inconsistency in tenses, which I put down to the publisher’s lack of budget for a proofreader.


A New Comfort Read

www3It took me a while as I’ve been busy with editing deadlines, but I finally finished reading Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa.

I loved it and I’m glad I was ‘forced’ to take my time with it.

The book is about Sentaro, a middle-aged man, who works at a dorayaki shop and is pretty tired of his job and his life. Once upon a time he thought he might be a writer, but then he ended up in jail and in debt, and now he simply goes through the motions, making and selling dorayaki in the day and getting drunk in the evenings.

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The Exorcist: The Film, the Book, the TV Series

The-Exorcist-Horror-SeriesI can’t even remember how I found out, but there is a TV series inspired by William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist. The first season aired in 2016. (There is nothing spooky about me not knowing how I know this, just more evidence that my memory sucks big, hairy balls.)

When I was a practising Roman Catholic, the evil portrayed in Blatty’s work coincided with what I had been taught to believe. The 1973 film (starring Linda Blair as the possessed child, Regan) disturbed me for the same reason, but also, I feel, largely due to the cinematography, the way the set is lit, the soundtrack.

exorcistcoverWhen I was in my early teens, I tried reading the novel and was so spooked that I threw it in the trash. I used to say that I thought the book was ‘watching’ me. I projected my own beliefs onto this block of paper and ink, giving it a power it didn’t have.

In Christian culture, Demons are malevolent spirits. Christians also conveniently and arrogantly view the gods of other (non-Abrahamic) religions as demons. The Christian god is the default supreme being in The Exorcist and many Western-based narratives that portray evil spirits being weakened by the sign of the cross and the contact of holy water. There is no room for anything that suggests that there isn’t just one ‘true’ god. Every other being is a servant of this god, and any that question the might and right of this god is automatically relegated to the ranks of the unholy; the vile; the evil.

Hindu and Daoist demons can have good or bad intentions and natures. In Daoist exorcism, the spirit is questioned in an effort to understand its motives. This is because possessions or hauntings may be caused by human transgressions and the spirits/demons simply responding as they see fit. An amicable solution is always preferred.

Demons, as portrayed in Christian stories, are not reasonable. They only seek to destroy and harm their hosts; they often attack without being provoked; and there is no negotiating a peaceful departure. At very least, they are driven into swine that run into water and drown. Reading about that event in the gospels I used to wonder what happened to the demons after the two thousand poor pigs died. Did they go off in search of new ‘homes’?

There are spoilers below this line so stop reading if you want to avoid them.Read More »

Book Review: Tale of the Bidadari by Stephani Soejono


Author/artist: Stephani Soejono

Publisher: Maple Comics, 110 pages

Erlang visits a remote village with his father, a doctor, on a mercy mission. From the architecture and headdress worn by the womenfolk, this community seems to be Minangkabau. Furthermore, the village chief is a woman: the Minangkabau are largest matrilineal society in the world.

Drought has left the villagers hungry and sick, so Doctor Tanuwe’s skills, as well as the medicine and food he has brought with him is well received although there is some indication that there are those who are resentful of his ‘modern’ ways.

Old beliefs and practices are still a feature in the village, and there is even (rather mysterious) talk of ‘sacrifice’ to address the drought.

Meanwhile, big city boy Erlang, is not enjoying himself. Not only does he find rural living and the villager’s traditions alienating and boring, he can’t even have something as simple as a bath because the water sources are dry as a result of the drought. Luckily, he meets Upik, a precocious little girl who proves to be a welcome distraction.

Erlang and the doctor are staying with a villager named Aminah and Upik is her daughter. There are hints that Aminah is supposed to keep an eye on the father and son, and that this is something that she needs to do to keep Upik safe: what is going on? Has it to do with Mayang, a young girl who is kept prisoner by the village chief and whom Upik sets free?

The chief tells Erlang that he should keep out of the village temple and the forest, but while playing with Upik, the boy finds himself led into the woods. There, they are met by Mayang, who opens Erlang’s eyes to the beauty of nature.

Who is Mayang? Well, the title of the comic hints at her supernatural nature. Bidadari are fae and, in Indonesian and Malaysian folklore, they are also known as Bunian. However, despite its title, the story does not really focus on the character, does not delve into what she is, where she’s from, nor the complexities of her relationship with the village and villagers.

I see this story as an account of the experiences of a city boy in a small Indonesian village rather than the tale of a fairy. I admit that the title’s focus on the ‘bidadari’ is potentially more intriguing to readers, but I feel that it is less Mayang’s nature that is interesting than the villagers’ beliefs, including the practice of blood sacrifice to ensure favourable weather for a good harvest. I am curious if this is based on historical fact, or if it’s pure fiction.

As a reader I found this a charming, engagingly illustrated story, but as an editor, I wanted more character development, more exploration of subject matter and themes, and more details in both the illustration and text. I was left with many questions about the nature of Mayang; the village’s past, including the reasons for Aminah’s apprehension; and even a suggestion of what the future has in store for her and Upik, bearing in mind the decision they make at the end of the book.

Finally, I was pulled up short on several occasions because of distracting typos so I hope Maple Comics gets their publications thoroughly proofread in future.

Apparently, Indonesian author/artist Soejono will be publishing another comic with Maple soon. Looking forward to it.





Book Review: Provenance by Ann Leckie

prvenanceAnn Leckie’s latest book, Provenance (Orbit Books, 448 pages) is every bit as enjoyable as her Imperial Radch Trilogy. It’s quite different in its themes, story and characters, but Leckie’s style holds steady at unpretentious, clear and engaging.

Its protagonist is Ingray Aughskold, a young Hwae woman, one of the foster children of high-ranking public representative Netano Aughskold. Netano has yet to name her heir and now, it’s really either between Ingray and older Danach, whom Ingray believes is Netano’s favourite.

In an attempt to win her mother’s approval, Ingray arranges for the release of a Hwae prisoner, Pahlad Budrakim, believing that Netano will be impressed by the plan’s reckless brilliance. In fact, Ingray’s idea is shockingly, laughably bad and stresses just how desperate she is to be noticed by ‘Mama’.

The thing is, Ingray isn’t quite the hopeless case she seems. Really, she’s just young and inexperienced, and incredibly stressed thanks to the way she’s been treated by her mother. Yes, they really fuck you up, your mum and dad. And, it transpires that Pahlad Budrakim and another key character, Tic Uisine, have also, in various ways and degrees, been screwed over by their parents. You could say, the results of all these different kinds of bad parenting are what drive the plot of Provenance.

When I got to the end of this book I wanted to start from the beginning again, and that was how I felt about all three of the Imperial Radch titles. There is just a lot to unpack and think about given that Leckie is all about creating worlds, cultures and technology that you never anticipate.

In the Trilogy, there was the exclusive use of the feminine pronouns within the Radch Empire. In Provenance, the Hwae have three genders (using the pronouns she, he and e) and choose one, along with their adult name, usually in their late teens, although one character doesn’t make up her mind til she’s twenty-five. Another character, the ambassador from the planet Geck, is a ‘she’, but has been another gender previously.

Issue08_Leckie_200x305This ambassador, by the way, may be my favourite character in this book. The Geck are, actually, a fascinating species, whom I hope Leckie will write more about. I would love to see their way of life and their thinking at the centre of a future novel.

For now, read the Trilogy if you haven’t already; and read Provenance. They’re all thought-provoking and exciting stories with protagonists that I, at any rate, got really attached to and protective of. It’s just a plus when you care so much about fictional characters that you start imagining their lives outside the books. That doesn’t happen too often to me.