Hiromi Kawakami’s first English language book was called Strange Weather in Tokyo and published in 2014 (in Japan it was titled The Teacher’s Briefcase), and was a gentle, touching, almost surreal and dreamlike story of a thirty-something woman slowly falling in love with an unassuming retired school teacher in his seventies who she sees in a café where she eats regularly. The Nakano Thrift Shop treads a similar path. only more so.
In The Nakano Thrift Shop, Hiromi’s narrator is again a young woman, this time one who kind of hesitantly -tentatively, possibly – falls in love with the twenty-something Takeo, her co-worker at Mr Nakano’s thrift shop. Called Hitomi, our heroine and narrator not so much drifts through life as life drifts through her, as Kawakami’s small cast of characters – Mr Nakano, the roguish womanising thrift shop owner; Masayo, his artistic, doll-making, older sister; Sakiko, Mr Nakano’s sensual and beautiful lover; and the awkwardly shy Takeo -all gently impinge on Hitomi’s consciousness.
Kawakami has an extraordinarily way of drawing you into her etherial world where, although nothing really happens, when they do, little transgressions or events cause ripples that spread seamlessly throughout the whole book and stay with you long after the story has finished. In Strange Weather in Tokyo it was the descriptions of food and the cherry blossom that heralds the arrival of spring that permeated, whereas in The Nakano Thrift Shop it is the inconsequential bric-a-brac and the minutiae of life that you eventually cherish. Until, as Mr Nakano’s sister says, we keel over:
Masayo wrapped up by saying, ’That’s why, when I haven’t heard from someone for a while, the first thing that occurs to me is that they might have just keeled over.’
Keeled over. I repeated Masayo’s phrase, in the same tone she had used.
‘You know?’ Masayo suppressed a chuckle as she peered into my face.
I-I don’t think he’s dead, I replied, shrinking into my seat.
Beautifully written and faultlessly translated by Allison Markin Powell, both Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop are a poignant, funny and effortless reminder of the pleasures to be found even in the banalities of modern life.
The covers to both books are by the Japanese photographer Natsumi Hayashi who specialises in taking slightly spooky and etherial pictures of Japanese girls levitating and floating and whose imagery seems the perfect visualisation of Hiromi Kawakami’s novels. See more of her work here: yowayowacamera.com