I’ve never read Japanese fiction at all, not even Murakami. The only thing translated from Japanese I’ve ever read is Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump, which is a non fiction account of autism, written when the author was around 13. (Side note – he’s just released another book which I am greatly looking forward to reading.) I’m bad with translated fiction – because I am able to read some foreign lit in the original, I have tended to think that reading in translation somehow doesn’t count, which is a) snobbery and b) just weird.
With the aim of correcting this gap in my reading, I requested The Nakano Thrift Shop from the publisher through work, in exchange for feedback or a review on the Waterstones website. It is set in a little thrift shop in a suburb of Tokyo, and the characters are the group of people who work there. There is Hitomi, the narrator, a young woman who has no real direction in life, Takeo, the abrupt, prickly delivery driver, Mr Nakano, the owner, an aging womaniser, and Masayo, his sister, an artist and hopeless romantic.
I’ve heard it described as more like an interconnected collection of short stories, and while it definitely is episodic and you could argue that it is sort of presented like a collection of short stories, given that each chapter is titled with an object which comes into the shop, and appears to have a conclusion of sorts, I don’t think it is as vignette-y as that would imply. It is loosely chronological and there are plots which run throughout: Takeo and Hitomi’s relationship, Mr Nakano’s affair with an antiques dealer, Masayo falling in love with a man of whom her brother does not approve.
This is a look at relationships, love and sex, and the way that these things can falter and struggle, the awkwardness that we experience as we try to form relationships, with women given the primary voices and much of the power, both in the actual establishment of these relationships and in the discussion of them. This is not to say that these are all powerful, decisive women going after what they want from men; Hitomi in particular is hugely indecisive and often has no idea what she wants from Takeo, or struggles to voice it when she does know. But the power to begin or end this relationship often seems to be in her hands; even when Takeo appears to have decided against the relationship, it is within her power to change his mind.
This is a subtle, melancholic, hesitant book, which I believe is typical of Japanese fiction. It is slow, the characters aren’t enormously expressive, and I can see why, as I scroll through goodreads, there are a fair few two star reviews. But that is the beauty of this novel. It takes its time to tell a simple story, with an enormous amount of nuance. It is romantic and moving and emotional, but only if you’re willing to just sit with it and allow it to wash over you. It’s probably not for everyone, but honestly I don’t have a bad word to say about it, and I will absolutely be reading as much Kawakami as I can get my hands on.