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.
Both 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.
In 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 sometimes 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.