Welcome to Women in Translation Month! While I may drift away from the plans I posted a couple of weeks back, my aim is the same – to review ten books by female writers that were originally published in a language other than English. Today sees the first of these reviews, but stick around to the very end to see my special feature for this month, the #WITMonth Bonus Shot. At the end of each post, I’ll be adding a few extra recommendations for those who like the sound of what I’m reviewing.
So, where are we starting? Japan, of course 🙂
Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop (translated by Allison Markin Powell, review copy courtesy of Portobello Books) is narrated by Hitomi Suganuma, a young Japanese woman who one day notices a sign in a shop window:
Pasted in the window of Mr. Nakano’s store was a notice written in sloppy calligraphy: PART-TIME HELP WANTED, INTERVIEWS NOW. Although the sign said they were interviewing now, when I went inside to enquire, the shopkeeper told me, ‘Interviews start on the first of September at two in the afternoon. Punctuality is of the essence.’ With his beard and knitted hat, the trim shopkeeper made an odd impression. That had been my first encounter with Mr. Nakano.
p.3 (Portobello Books, 2016)
Having successfully applied for the position, she finds herself working in a kind of second-hand goods store, a shop where anything can turn up (as long as it’s not too expensive or high-class), and while she’s only looking for a way to earn some money, her time at the shop brings her so much more.
The main cast of the novel are the four people connected to the shop. There’s the owner, Haruo Nakano, a bearded curiosity with an eye for women, and his elder sister, Masayo, an artist of sorts who likes to keep an eye on her brother’s affairs. Then there’s Hitomi, of course, who keeps to herself (and doesn’t reveal much about her background to the reader), which just leaves delivery driver Takeo – the obvious love interest (naturally), but with secrets he keeps close to his chest.
Kawakami’s last work to make it into English, The Briefcase (AKA Strange Weather in Tokyo in the UK edition) was relatively successful, and The Nakano Thrift Shop is a natural follow-up. Once again, we have a woman drifting through life, randomly becoming close to a man whose affection can’t be taken for granted, and even the format of the book is very similar, with the longish chapters giving the novel the air of a series of linked short stories. While the love object this time is an awkward youth rather than the eccentric older man (even if Nakano has a lot in common with ‘Sensei’ from the previous work), there are obvious parallels in the way the relationship progresses – and Portobello have even gone with a very similar cover for their version 😉
Yet it would be unfair to simply see The Nakano Thrift Shop as another whimsical romantic comedy as Kawakami’s work is far more subtle than that. Her style is fascinating, with the chapters almost acting as independent stories, each separated by a distinct gap. The same is true inside the chapters with a rather oblique approach to the characters’ behaviour forcing the reader to read between the lines, with much left unsaid. Takeo is characterised more by his silences than his words, and many of the conversations the characters do have run in a slightly confused manner.
What these episodes do is help us to put together a picture of the crew, piece by piece, and one way of seeing the shop is as a retreat for people seeking shelter from mainstream society. Mr. Nakano started the business after fleeing corporate life, and Takeo has ended up there after being forced to drop out of high school due to intense bullying. It may not come across quite as strongly for a reader with little knowledge of Japanese society, but there’s a definite sense of the shop as a haven for people unable to express themselves as they would like. Gradually, the four main characters develop strong ties and begin to act more like a family than a group of coworkers.
However, The Nakano Thrift Shop is also very much a book about relationships, with the growing connection between Hitomi and Takeo at the centre of the novel. From the start, Hitomi finds herself attracted to the delivery boy, but there’s something about him which makes it difficult to get close:
Takeo’s tone was light, which made me look at him suddenly. It was the first time today that I had really looked at his face. Takeo’s eyes were closed. In contrast to his light tone, his expression was like that of a small animal crouched down in its burrow. Takeo’s entire body appeared to be coursing with energy, as if it were emitting a faint electrical charge. (p.56)
As the story unfolds, Takeo’s personality is developed, revealing a shy young man with issues which will need to be addressed. Whether Hitomi will be patient enough to see the hard times through is doubtful, though.
However, the relationships in the book rarely stay at a platonic level, and another characteristic of the book is the way sex is discussed openly in the shop. Mr. Nakano talks about his sex life with his employees in a way which would bring law-suits in the west while his sister is a bold woman living alone, who makes no secret of her needs. In the first chapter, an elderly gentleman (whose sexual allure Hitomi can’t help but notice) comes into the shop to offer an item for sale – which turns out to be erotic photos of one of his lovers. Even if the book is rarely explicit, you certainly couldn’t accuse Kawakami of being prudish…
The Nakano Thrift Shop is an enjoyable work, and the structure means it can be read at leisure, a story at a time, even if the reader does have to fill in the gaps a little. I’m not sure it’s as accomplished as The Briefcase, but I imagine many readers will enjoy this one more – and with a lot of Kawakami’s work remaining untranslated (in English, at least), I suspect there’s a lot more to come in the future 🙂
#WITMonth Bonus Shot – Number 1
Welcome to the first of my #WITMonth Bonus Shot features, in which I suggest some further reading ideas connected to the post (and country) of the day – links, where applicable, are to my reviews 🙂
The Nakano Thrift Shop is a fairly light read at times, and if that sounds like your kind of thing, I have several suggestions. Quite apart from Kawakami’s other works in English (The Briefcase/Strange Weather in Tokyo and Manazuru), there’s Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor or virtually anything by Banana Yoshimoto (e.g. Kitchen, Goodbye Tsugumi, N.P.).
Then again, you might prefer something a little darker… If so, Ogawa’s other works in English (The Diving Pool, Hotel Iris and Revenge) might be for you, and I’d also point you in the direction of Hitomi Kanehara’s Snakes & Earrings and Autofiction – two, short, dark, disturbing books. While I haven’t tried her work myself, Natsuo Kirino’s books might also appeal.
If you’re really not sure where to start, might I suggest Comma Press’ The Book of Tokyo? A collection of ten short stories, it includes pieces by several female writers (including Kawakami, Yoshimoto, and Kanehara) and is an excellent introduction to contemporary J-Lit 🙂
That’s all for today – look out for more #WITMonth Bonus Shots in the weeks to come!