Monday, 29 August 2016

"Mr Nakano had screwed up. Not a business mistake. A screw up with women"

Readers of this blog will know that I'm an avid fan of contemporary Japanese literature so its no surprise that this week's review is of The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell.  Kawakami is a leading Japanese author who is popular not only at home but also in translation with novels like the brilliant Strange Weather in Tokyo. For me she is up there with Banana Yoshimoto as one of the most interesting women writers in Asia.

Like Strange Weather, Portobello books have published The Nagano Thrift Shop with cover artwork which includes 'levitating girl' photography by Natsumi Hayashi. If you're not familiar with Hayashi's photography style then check out the link here or on Hayashi's own blog 'Yowayowa camera woman diary' here. For me this is a perfect creative partnership with Kawakami's off-beat fiction and Hayashi's idiosyncratic artwork.

Anyway, back to the novel. The Nagano Thrift Shop is a story about a young woman, Hitomi, who starts to work behind the counter in a traditional neighbourhood second-hand shop owned by the enigmatic Mr Nakano. The narrative is very much Hitomi's but the novel is structured with myriad characters who come and go along with the curios in the shop, each chapter is in fact named after a particular item on sale in the shop e.g. 'Bowl'.

I read the shop itself as a metaphor for an alternative Japan - this is a home for drifters and aesthetes rather than career men or women. The shop itself is in a residential neighbourhood, rather than a downtown business area like Shinjuku, which is interesting for readers of the translated version. Allison Markin Powell does a pretty good job at making sense of some of the cultural references for the English reader.

Hitomi knows little about what she wants in life. Although she is attracted to the delivery driver Takeo, himself a college drop out, their relationship is less than conventional. Both struggle to communicate what they want and build a tentative relationship somewhere between friend and lover.

Other women in the novel such as Mr Nakano's sister and his mistress are stronger and more determined but Hitomi looks on from a distance even when these other women try to befriend her. Like much Japanese fiction this is a novel about identity, loneliness and about non-conformism. With Kawakami's writing raising questions about sex and identity it is no surprise that her novels are so popular in structured, and often formal, Japan. 

This is a great novel and a highly accessible introduction to Japanese fiction.   

I read this novel on Kindle in part in Margate during the weekend of the brilliant Margate Bookie

The Nagano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami, published by Portobello, 256 pages

Monday, 22 August 2016

The summer edit.....

The best books I've read and reviewed this summer. Pick up a copy now before the long bank holiday weekend!

"She wanted to tell every mother, every father: There is meaning in motion"

"Am I a rigorous cultural anthropologist, or am I in love?"

"That sun, that light had faded, and she had faded with them. Now she was as grey as the season itself"

Sunday, 14 August 2016

"She wanted to tell every mother, every father: There is meaning in motion"

The idea of the 'Frontier' in literature is a well used and endlessly compelling device. From classic novels like O Pioneers and White Fang to contemporary science fiction and adventure writing the frontier is alive and well in popular culture. In Eggers' latest novel Heroes of the Frontier the role of the frontier is played by Alaska and is the setting for a unique family road-trip adventure.

Josie is a thirty-eight year old mum who packs up her two kids and sets off from Anchorage in a hired winnebago to rediscover some purpose in life after the breakdown of her relationship with the kids father, "His interest in them came and went, like his passion for economic equality or triathlons", and a pending lawsuit at her dental practice. Josie is strong and determined but ultimately lacking in an actual plan; an imaginative premise for an adventure steeped in despair and black humour.

Modern Alaska shines brilliantly as the wild frontier with Eggers' using an added wild fire to create a landscape of abandoned houses in which the family camp out. Whether Eggers' Alaska is really a utopian bastion of the American dream I don't know but I don't think this novel could be set anywhere else. 

Eggers' prose is accessible and fast paced which keeps the pages turning throughout. The plot is straight forward and simple but so full of empathy that the tension of life as a single parent is captured in every single moment; "The days were like this, each was miles long and had no aim or no possibility of regret".

Dave Eggers is a massively poplar writer with a distinct voice and personality as an author which for me is an important part of understanding any book. I read this book knowing about Eggers' own experience essentially raising his younger brother after the death of their parents. To that end its hard to distinguish where the narrative in the novel becomes the story of the author and the book is all the better for it. 

I read this novel on Kindle in part in the gardens outside Tate Modern's new Switch House. 

Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers, published by Penguin, 400 pages

Monday, 8 August 2016

"Am I a rigorous cultural anthropologist, or am I in love?"

Honestly, it was the striking image on the cover of this book that really grabbed my attention. Amongst all the table top displays of 'summer reads' there was something about the isolation of the girl in the photograph that made the book stand apart.

Booker shortlisted author Deborah Levy's novel Hot Milk concerns Sophie, a twenty something woman who moves from West London to southern Spain to look after her dependant mother who is undergoing treatment for a mysterious illness at a private clinic. Sophie is an anthropology graduate whose academic skills are not exactly being put to use in her job as a barista in West London. Instead her curiosity is channeled into understanding her own relationship with her sick and controlling mother and distant and estranged father.

We first meet Sophie as a young lifeguard, Juan, administers emergency treatment when she is stung by a jelly fish. Sophie's wounds are treated at various times in the novel by different hands dependent upon her need to connect with the people around her. Turning at times to both Juan and Ingrid, a German woman 'whose body is long and hard like an autobahn"; both relationships reflect the loneliness at the heart of the character. 

Characters come and go in the novel but it is this loneliness that really resonated to me in Levy's writing. Here is a character torn between duty to her mother and and over riding need to escape her own confines. The scorching heat of southern Spain and the burning sores of her jelly fish stings raise the tension to an unbearable level.

I really enjoyed this novel with its rich metaphors, repeating visual motifs (such as the greek mythology inspired medusa and starry apple desktop skies) and locations that subverted the standard Mediterranean holiday settings. From the creepy marble clad clinic in Almeria to the urban heave of Syntagma Square in Athens, this couldn't be further from the glossy images in the holiday brochures.

I read this novel on Kindle in part in Hyde Park at the Serpentine Gallery's summer pavilion. 

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, published by Penguin, 220 pages