"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