‘The Woman in the Purple Skirt’ by Natsuko Imamura (Review)

Today’s choice is a book I was hoping to see earlier this year as it was released in the UK and the US a few months back.  Sadly, I didn’t see anything at that time, but I was recently lucky enough to be sent a copy by the Australian distributor, Allen & Unwin, as it’s just been released here, too.  It’s another debut work in English by a female Japanese writer, and it’s a book that should do well, a deceptively complex tale with a subtle bite 🙂

*****
Natsuko Imamura’s The Woman in the Purple Skirt (translated by Lucy North) introduces its subject on the very first page:

There’s a person living not too far from me known as the Woman in the Purple Skirt.  She only ever wears a purple-colored skirt – which is why she has this name.
p.1 (Faber & Faber, 2021)

The Woman in the Purple Skirt is described as some sort of mystery, a local celebrity everyone notices, a woman who glides through life without ever actually touching it, or being affected by it.  The narrator longs to get close to her, but given the other woman’s rather plain appearance and dull actions, we’re not really sure why.

With a few nudges from the shadows, the Woman in the Purple Skirt, who has thus far been slaving away at poorly paid casual jobs, manages to find work at the hotel the narrator also works at.  This new position is a change for the better, and it shows.  Her appearance, mood and lifestyle improve dramatically, and the narrator shows us just how much of a change has been brought about by her subtle change of fortune.  Yet what goes up must come down, and the woman is soon to become the target of gossip and jealousy, with her work colleagues soon turning against her.  Never fear, though – the narrator is still there, and when the right moment comes, she’ll step out of the shadows and offer a helping hand.

The Woman in the Purple Skirt is an entertaining and often bizarre work, so if you want closure in your reading, and a story that’s easy to follow, you might well struggle with this.  Which is not to say that it’s a particularly difficult work.  Imamura’s story is written in simple prose and divided into short chapters that make it fairly easy to read.  However, it’s what’s *not* said that makes it all a puzzle, and you’ll be scratching your head and wondering what it all means long after you’ve turned the final page.

On way of approaching the novel is as a story of a woman’s transformation.  Mayuko Hino (as the Woman in the Purple Skirt is actually called) is an everyday character whose day-to-day struggles have marked her appearance.  Once she starts her new job, her hair, skin, posture and smile start to improve, and where she used to be the butt of jokes, she’s now confident enough to chat to her co-workers and even play in the park with children who used to tease her:

Once they had finished the apple, the Woman in the Purple Skirt and the children began to play a game of tag.  This was the first time the Woman in the Purple Skirt had ever been made a member of the children’s little gang.  The game of tag continued on and on, till well after nightfall, and each and every one of them had a go at being “it”. (p.74)

This one stroke of fortune in finding a semi-regular job that suits her brings about a striking transformation, with the writer hinting that a little luck is all anyone needs to get that first step up in life.

However, in many ways The Woman in the Purple Skirt is also about how success brings jealousy.  The same co-workers who encouraged Mayuko when she was a shy newcomer hiding behind her hair now abuse her behind her back, eventually shunning her.  Rumours begin to spread through the hotel, and Mayuko is the first to be blamed when objects go missing.  Having risen too high, too quickly, becoming a little *too* happy, there’s a sense that she needs to be cut down to size, and there’s no shortage of people willing to take on the task.

In truth, though, what makes Imamura’s novel such a compelling read isn’t actually, well, you know, the purple-skirted woman herself.  Instead, a large part of our attention is focused on the woman silently watching her.  Early on in the piece, she labels herself the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan, someone nobody notices, and this is one of the biggest mysteries of the work.  Many readers will be wondering how she hangs around, close enough to Mayuko to know exactly what she does, but somehow without ever being noticed.

We do eventually find out who she is, but understanding why she’s keeping both eyes on Mayuko is far trickier.  From the start, it’s clear she’s a tad obsessive:

As of now, I haven’t seen any sign of threatening letters posted on the Woman in the Purple Skirt’s apartment door.  Nor have I noticed anyone who appears to be her landlord staking out her building, waiting and watching for her to come home.  At night I see the lights go on in her place, and the dial on her gas meter appears to be steadily ticking over.  She must be managing to pay her rent, and her electricity and heating bills. (p.30)

The narrator is constantly tailing the other woman, always informed about her movements.  She does her best to help her, circling job ads in magazines and leaving them for her to find.  It’s all a tad creepy when you think about it – and there’s plenty more where that came from.

Rather than the plot, though, it’s the style the story is told in that really makes the book.  Imamura uses simple, clear language, almost factual at times, yet the simplicity of the writing belies what’s actually happening.  There’s a glaring ‘wrongness’ to it all, with the content and language frequently jarring, and North has done excellent work with her eerie, clipped prose, at the same time both plain and disturbing.  There’s more than a touch here of the style of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), and I suspect that fans of that work will enjoy Imamura’s novel.

Overall, The Woman in the Purple Skirt is a quick read, but a fascinating story, one that will confuse and delight in equal measures.  Yes, it does have a rather ambiguous ending, and you may be disappointed if you’re expecting all the questions to be answered.  However, readers able to cope with a touch of uncertainty will enjoy wondering just why the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan did all this – and, of course, what she’ll do from now on…

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