‘The Little House’ by Kyōko Nakajima (Review)

While the first of this week’s ‘house’ visits saw me break new ground in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, the next one takes place on far more familiar (literary) territory.  Today’s Women in Translation Month review takes us to Tokyo, where we’ll be spending some time in the company of a maid and the small family she works for.  It’s probably not the best time for a visit, what with war looming on the horizon, but as you’ll see, our host knows how to make the best of any household situation, even in times of hardship 🙂

Kyōko Nakajima’s The Little House (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, review copy courtesy of Darf Publishers) is an enjoyable novel narrated by an elderly woman looking back on a memorable period of her life.  Having already ‘written’ a guide for housewives (Granny Taki’s Super Housework Book – which actually sounds like something you might see in a Japanese bookshop), the elderly lady is approached by her publishers, who suggest a more personal, anecdotal follow-up work.

While that idea comes to nothing, Taki takes the opportunity to write down what she calls her ‘memory notes’, detailing the years she spent in service in Tokyo before and during World War Two.  After a short period working for a writer, the teenaged Taki is taken on to look after a young woman, Tokiko, and her infant son Kyoichi, and after the early death of her mistress’s first husband and her subsequent remarriage, Taki moves with the family to the home Tokiko’s new husband has built for her, a Western-style house with a red tile roof.  This is where Taki spends much of her youth, in a charming new house caring for a beautiful mistress, a cute (if sickly) young boy and a master who is usually at work.  Now if only there wasn’t the threat of war hanging over their perfect lives…

Much of the appeal of The Little House lies in its look back at Japanese social history, with Nakajima using Taki to tell the current generations how the war years really were.  This generation is actually present in the novel in the form of Takeshi, the narrator’s great-nephew, and he reacts very much as many readers would, surprised by how ordinary and undramatic most of his great-aunt’s stories are.  At times, he even accuses her of whitewashing history (“don’t tell lies, Nan”), refusing to believe her version of events, which are very different to what he’s been told.

In truth, his unease is understandable.  Far from describing a time of austerity with the country at war on multiple fronts, Taki paints a picture of a golden age of fervent nationalism and prosperity.  For the family she serves, at least, this was a very happy time:

“We’re going skiing!” the Master boomed the moment he arrived back home.
It was the end of December 1941, and ever since Japan had declared war against America everything had suddenly brightened up.

Food had become a little scarcer, but not to the point where there wasn’t enough, and shares for rubber companies in the south had soared, providing huge returns for investors, so the streets became a little livelier and people were calmer, too.
p.163 (Darf Publishers, 2019)

The years leading up to this announcement have been just as interesting.  Much is told of 1940 and the glamorous events celebrating the 2600th anniversary of the Emperor, and of the preparations for the Olympics, which (inevitably) were eventually cancelled.  The Tokyoites considered their city to be among the best and most advanced in the world, and Taki certainly makes it seem that way.

Of course, we all know how the story ends, and as the novel progresses, there are more mentions of the war and food shortages.  However, this is actually just the background to the family drama Taki weaves into the historical events.  During her time in the little house, the beautiful Tokiko becomes distracted, and with her older husband often absent, it’s no surprise when his young colleague Itakura becomes a frequent visitor to the house.  Inevitably, there’s a prospect of their relationship progressing beyond the merely social, and Taki starts to wonder if, and how, she should get involved.

This idea of a maid’s responsibility is raised early on in the book, with Taki’s first master telling her a story of a clever maid burning a document by ‘accident’, knowing what her master needed her to do, even if he would never have commanded her to do so.  Over the years, Taki comes to believe ever more strongly in the importance of the maid to a family:

What I have learned from doing this kind of work over many years is that if there are a hundred families, there will be a hundred different types of couples.  Anyone such as a maid, who enters the inner circles of a family through their work, should not go spreading gossip about the family situation for their own amusement. (p.48)

However, it’s only when times get tough that Taki realises what responsibilities a good maid really has, and the time will come when she must make a tough decision without guidance.  When the hour of need comes, will she be able to step up and save the family?

The Little House has echoes of several other Japanese works, but one book I couldn’t help comparing it to is Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, a novel which also covers the pre-war period.  Like Nakajima’s story, A True Novel opens a window into the past, showing the lives of those who are now old, or long gone, and in certain passages, such as the summer holidays the characters spend away from Tokyo (for Mizumura, it’s in Karuizawa, for Nakajima, Kamakura), there are such similarities that you could almost imagine the characters bumping into each other at some point.

Of course, the biggest similarity between the two works is that both are largely narrated by the household help, and like Fumiko, the narrator of A True Novel, there’s far more to Taki than meets the eye.  In her comforting manner, Taki skilfully confides in the reader, yet Takeshi’s occasional interruptions serve to awaken us from the hypnotic rhythm of her story, forcing the old woman to justify herself.  The majority of the story is told in her words, and it would take a very foolish reader indeed not to wonder if her tale really is the whole truth and whether there’s anything she’s not telling us…

There’s an obvious quality to A Little House, so it’s unsurprising that it took out the Naoki Prize, one of the top Japanese literary awards, and in Tapley Takemori’s excellent translation it makes for a compelling, enjoyable reading experience.  After seven chapters of Taki’s reminiscences, the final section caps the book off nicely, wrapping up loose ends and revealing a few last surprises.  Sadly, this is yet another of the bumper crop of J-Lit novels (mostly written by women) that were left off the MBIP longlist this year (in favour of a rather disappointing pseudo-Japanese farce…), and I don’t think it’s really attracted a lot of attention.  That’s a shame because this is a book to recommend whether you’re heavily into Japanese literature or simply a fan of good stories well told.  Here’s hoping I’ve convinced a few more readers to check out Granny Taki’s tales of a time long gone – I can assure you they’re well worth the effort 🙂

2 thoughts on “‘The Little House’ by Kyōko Nakajima (Review)

  1. Why oh why do I not get notifications of your posts in my inbox, although I am following your blog? I’ve missed out on all your excellent #WITMonth reading! I’ll clearly have to physically check every day on your blog rather than expect anything automated to work! This sounds like a fascinating book, that comparison to A True Novel certainly did it for me!


    1. Marina Sofia – Is your subscription an email one? Sounds strange that it doesn’t go through…

      This one is excellent and possibly my pick for the month – not quite as in-depth as the Mizumura, but it certainly has a fair bit in common.


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