Review of The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Allison Markin Powell.
The Nakano Thrift Shop is set in a thrift shop in Tokyo. The main character and narrator is Hitomi, a girl who gets a job in the shop owned by Mr Nakano. The other main characters with them is Mr Nakano's sister, Masayo and employee Takeo. Each of the chapters is named after an object that the thrift shop uses but this isn't about the shop itself but those that work there. This is the second novel of Kawakami's that I read after Strange Weather in Tokyo
Hitomi has a little thing for Takeo, a guy that was damaged through the effects of bullying in school, he is also somewhere between asexual and demisexual. Mr Nakano is married but having an affair with a woman that works in a similar line. Masayo is seeing a married man.
Quite an endearing read, I enjoyed both Kawakami's style and the gentle humour in the novel. This novel revolves around quite an endearing cast of characters, ok I've used endearing twice in this paragraph so time to wrap up the review.This is just a novel I loved, once I got out the comparison between the shop and Auntie's Wainwright's shop in Last of the Summer Wine
* * * * *
Review of Record of a Night too brief by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Lucy North
Record of a Night Too Brief is a collection of 3 stories by Kawakami, originally published in Japan in 1996, each is about 50 pages long.
The first was the title story about a girl and her porcelain girlfriend take on a journey in a dream, followed by a mist and meeting various things like kiwis and moles.
The second story Missing was told by a girl whose brother vanished, but she could still see him at times. The brother was engaged so the family decide the second brother to take his place in the engagement.
The third is about this girl who gave up teaching and now work as a shop assistant in a shop selling buddhist rosary beads (is if right to call them rosary beads. The story does refer to them as such). In her apartment, she comes across a snake in human form. I think the setting bore similarity kawakami's splendid the nakano thrift shop. However apart from girl in shop and a boss, that is where the similarity ends.
As each story is short, one sitting reads, I don't want to say too much but I found these to be wonderfully surreal reads, told with a clear voice. My favourite was missing, for me this was a 5 star story while the title one was my least favourite but still a really good 4 star read. The third story was 4 and a half read so overall.
* * * * 1/2
Murakami’s third novel continues the story of the Rat, a character that featured in the first and second novel. The Rat is once again not the main character, more a catalyst for the exploration of mystery the unnamed narrator is sent on. Apart from the Rat I don’t think anyone is named in the novel. Even the narrator’s girlfriend is just talked about as she etc.
As always Murakami heads down avenues of thought that on the surface seem commonplace but with just enough twist to make the tale seem surreal. I always come away from a Murakami book with more questions than answers and perhaps that’s another reason why I love them. They don’t explain everything. Life is mostly an unresolved wander to death and Murakami seems to reflect that in his writing.
This novel seems to be the beginning of his interest (obsession?) with religion and cults. Having read some of his later novels I can now see the germinating seeds of thought in this novel. The story flowed easily as good tales of travel and mystery do, possibly making this a good place to start if you want to explore the other horizons found in Murakami’s work. Also even though it is the third in the Rat trilogy you don’t need to have read the first two to follow this story.
Occupied City is a short novel, but it's not an easy one. Ostensibly, it is about the poisoning of the staff of a Tokyo bank. Twelve people die.
In reality, the novel is about war and its aftermath; research into chemical weapons, war crimes and what happens when the rules change. Through a series of 12 first person narratives - many of them very fractured - we see different facets of the murder investigation, the weapons research and the world of gangsters. A common theme is the need to adapt or die.
The structure of the novel matches a traditional Japanese ghost story game where narrators sit around a circle of candles. As each concludes a ghost story, he or she extinguishes a candle. The room gets darker, the atmosphere gets heavier, until in the end there is darkness. But in this novel, it is not the stories that are ghosts - it is their narrators.
Some of the stories are lucid and take the narrative forward - although with 12 narrators covering common ground, there is an element of repetition. Other narrators, though, are in the depths of madness and serve to create atmosphere. As with other David Peace novels, the repetition is not confined to the plot; many of the narrators repeat mantra like phrases over and over again. It is intense.
David Peace doesn't provide easy answers. This is not a whodunnit where the culprit is unmasked in the last scene. One man, Sadamichi Hirasawa, an artist, is destined to be convicted of the poisoning despite clear evidence in both the real world and in the Dark Gate of stories that he could not be the killer. We do eventually meet the killer but his identity remains an enigma. In a sense, it doesn't matter. We know what he is, even if we never know the name on his birth certificate.
This is not a novel where things join up. Things touch, they overlap, they diverge, but there is no single answer. We see a city that was secure in its reverence for the Emperor, justified in taking whatever action necessary to protect him, brought to its knees, occupied by foreign powers and those who were most diligent in their support for the Emperor are now those who are held up to be the worst war criminals. Unless, of course, they can remain hidden in the shadows. The powers of the state - and the powers of the occupiers - are focused on creating a mutually acceptable outcome. They manipulate, distort and treat individuals as expendable.
As living people, the twelve victims were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And as ghosts seeking justice, again, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Occupied City is a difficult read but a very satisfying one. It towers over the its predecessor in an apparent trilogy, the somewhat lacklustre Tokyo Year Zero. In fact, it is so radically different in style and content that most readers would probably not place them in the same set at all.
Tokyo is a really complex, intriguing novel.
We meet Ben Monroe, an American academic who moved to Japan via London after his marriage collapsed. He has a thing about death cults. We meet his daughter Mazzy, nearly 16, who is coming out to stay with him as she spends a reluctant semester at an international school in Tokyo whilst her mother, Lydia, stays back in the States and worries about radiation from Fukushima. And we meet Koji, the man who sat next to Mazzy on the plane and seems to like her – perhaps a bit too much.
The star of the show is the sense of place. Hogg evokes a perfect image of Japan. The strange mix of seaminess and sterility; the perfect but soulless nightclubs and bars; the contrast between the wholesome ryokans and the anonymity of the capsule hotels and love hotels. The food and drink feel authentic; the weather, the stations, the alleyways. It’s so accurate you can almost touch it.
The story itself involves Ben spending too much time searching for a mythological woman (a hostess he met on a previous trip to Japan) whilst spending too little time looking out for a real woman (his daughter, who appears to be in great peril). Bad call… The story poses questions about how far a separated man should feel beholden to his former family and how far he should be getting on with the rest of his life. Nicholas Hogg avoids giving an answer to this – we just know that Ben hasn’t got the balance quite right.
In any case, even if Ben is right to put distance between himself and his past life, he lacks a viable game plan for the future. Spending big money on crazy whims, is no way forward. Ben displays the detachment from reality of the worst kind of ex-pat; he behaves as though rules and societal expectations apply only when he wants them to; his actions may have immediate consequences, but as soon as he gets back to his apartment the slate is wiped clean and he can start the next day afresh. Basically, Ben is on one long, indefinite holiday.
The pacing is superb. As the novel builds – and it’s not a long novel – the sense of menace and peril ratchets up. The reader starts to see hidden monsters lurking in the shadows. And the zipping of the narrative from Ben’s first person to Mazzy’s third person – and the occasional viewpoint of Koji keeps a pacy feel.
If there is one reservation, it is the final sections when things go very surreal. For a novel that has felt very real and open, it is a bit jarring. It is explained in subsequent epilogues, but it didn’t feel authentic when being read. It may have been a bit of artifice to bring the novel to a rapid end without having to unfold events in a step by step sequence – which overall is merciful (nothing worse than the tension of a good psychological novel being lost by faithful adherence to the timeline of the denouement). And, in fairness, the handling of the ending is memorable…
Nicholas Hogg really is a first rate writer – engaging, lucid and original, but never showy. Each of his three novels is quite different, but all of equally high quality. Bring on the next one…