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.

Review: I Do Not Come to You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

i-do-notWhen I first heard about this book (several years ago), I was interested to read it in order to understand the minds and the circumstances of those who choose to attempt to cheat total strangers.

I’ve never believed it to be a straightforward issue, i.e. that scammers are all evil bastards who deserve to burn in hell. I think people do things for reasons that only they can fully comprehend. Every single day, we all do a variety of things, make decisions, and react in ways that apply only to us as individuals – because each of us has different experiences and even if the experience is identical, two people will not react to it in exactly the same way. Walk a mile or two in soneone’s shoes before you judge their actions – that’s what I try to do (not always successfully).

I was added by a few scammers on Skype very recently (see this blog post for more on that) and the experience of dealing with them (I responded because I was curious about how they operate), led me to finally read I Do Not Come to You By Chance.Read More »

Review: All Alone in the Universe by Lynne Rae Perkins

all-aloneI finally read Lynne Rae Perkins’s All Alone in the Universe, which I only managed to find this year, at Kinokuniya.

I read Criss Cross several years ago and if it’s possible for a writer to be one of your favourites based on just one book then Lynne Rae Perkins is that author.

I might have known, one-upon-a-time, that All Alone has the same protagonist as Criss Cross, but I’d forgotten. In fact, I’ve forgotten what Criss Cross is about, just that I loved every word of it.

All Alone comes before Criss Cross and it’s a short book that left me wanting more. Indeed, it could be one of Alice Munro’s longer shorties, and as beautifully and evocatively written. Debbie, the main character, is well-realised, and I completely related to her and her struggles.

It may sound crazy that I, at 49, totally gets the feeling of loss, indignation and isolation a 14-year-old feels when she senses her friend drifting away from her, but there you go. Not only do I remember feeling those emotions when I was Debbie’s age; I still feel them now, and then also feel petulant and spoilt when I do.

Books in which ‘not a lot happens’ are my favourite sort, and this story is one of those: not action-driven, but flowing with the meandering currents of Debbie’s state of mind and emotions.

criss-crossCombined with art by Perkins (it was her major as an undergraduate as well as in grad school), the overall impression is both whimsical and contemplative.

All Alone‘s only fault, in my opinion, is that it’s too brief and thus, somewhat lacks a sense of resolution. Of course, this (resolution) is not a must: Life doesn’t always (hardly ever, actually) resolve neatly in a concluding chapter and paragraph, and Debbie is obviously a work-in-progress.

I’ve started reading Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (continuing my Oct to Dec TBR challenge), but I think I shall make a short detour to Criss Cross.  


Lynne Rae Perkins

Re-Read: The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones


My re-read of Diana Wynne Jones IS continuing, I swear, although it keeps getting interrupted by me being in the mood for other books (currently, Qiu Xialong’s Chief Inspector Chen mysteries). After a hugely satisfying Hexwood re-read, I started on the Unexpected Magic anthology, abandoned that and moved on to The Time of the Ghost.

The Time of the Ghost was my very first DWJ, bought in 1986, in Singapore when I was doing my ‘A ‘levels at National Junior College. I seem to remember a table with books laid out on it, at some kind of market or near a hawker centre. I think it was in Jurong West, where I stayed in a rented room. I still have the book I bought (above), a hardback Macmillan edition, with cover art by Maggie Heslop.Read More »

Book Review: Mahsuri by Ooi Kok Chuen

MahsuriFirst published in The Star on 31st July, 2016

IN Mahsuri: A Legend Reborn, Ooi Kok Chuen expands on the legend of Langkawi’s famous icon who was supposed to have cursed the island during her execution for adultery. My ex-husband, whom I met in Langkawi 20 years ago, says that the curse actually involves anyone who visits Langkawi being doomed to listen to Mahsuri’s story being repeated, ad nauseum, by all and sundry. I have to agree that it really gets milked to death and would benefit from some skilful re-telling.

Preeta Samarasan, the author of Evening is the Whole Day, actually wrote a compelling version of the tale for my collection Malaysian Tales: Retold and Remixed, but I feel the story, like this region’s other fairytales, myths and legends, offers Malaysian writers endless scope for fresh interpretations, and its potential has not been maximised.

Such stories have usually survived generations stripped down to the barest, most basic of plots, their key players little more than cardboard figures just crying out to be fleshed out and reimagined.  Read More »