I didn’t like this book. It comprises a novella (Kitchen) and short story (Moonlight Shadow), but I’m not sure how much is the book’s fault, and how much can be attributed to being set in an unfamiliar culture (Japanese teens/twenties), possibly bad translation, and that although the atmosphere is contemporary, it was actually written and set nearly 30 years ago.
I was expecting lyrical language, and quirky insights into Japanese attitudes to death and LGBTQ issues. I was sadly disappointed, but kept going because it was short and because I gave up part way through my previous book (something I rarely do).
Language: Teens and Translation
The weaknesses here made me sad. Both stories are narrated by a (different) young woman. The language is often simple, but rather than the spare beauty I vaguely associate with Japanese and Chinese writing, it’s mostly just banal and awkward. That may be how angst-ridden, love-up, bereaved Japanese YAs really speak (or spoke, 30 years ago) or it may be the translation, but the result is the same.
After a particularly egregious section of stilted psychobabble, one character says, “What kind of talk is that? Sounds like it was translated from English.” I guess the author is aware of how clunky it is. Odd.
“It’s amazing how good this is,” I said.
“Isn’t it,” said Hiiraji.
“Yes, it’s delicious. So delicious it makes me grateful I’m alive,” I said.
Another: “Why do I love everything that has to do with kitchens so much?… a kitchen represents some distant longing engraved on my soul.” Does anyone think like that? (And it doesn’t answer the question anyway.)
Metaphors must be hard to translate, but this one is so mixed up, I grudgingly admire it: “The two of us, alone, were flowing down that river of light, suspended in the cosmic darkness, and were approaching a critical juncture.”
Maybe YAs would relate to the characters better than I did (I have no idea), but I’d be reluctant to recommend it to them because of the next problem…
Transgender is not Transvestite
The weaknesses here made me cross. Anyone concerned with LGBTQ issues (especially trans ones) may feel the urge to throw this book at the wall. One has to remember it’s a different culture, a generation ago, but the trouble is, it doesn’t feel like a historical novel.
One young man takes to wearing his dead girlfriend’s sailor-suit school uniform. He finds that comforting (and no one would think it odd for a girl to wear a boyfriend’s jumper); a female friend is “mortified” to be seen with him, but other girls find it attractive because they assume it means he understands women. Not exactly enlightened views, but plausible, perhaps. However, they’re not challenged, which tacitly condones them.
Worse, is the trans character. She’s much loved and sympathetically portrayed, but the terminology is muddled and descriptions would raise eyebrows and hackles nowadays. Early on, she is described as having “had everything ‘done’, from her face to her whatever”, but she is often referred to as “really” being a man or a transvestite. Then it turns out that it was only when her wife died that she realised “I didn’t like being a man… It became clear that the best thing to do was to adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness. So I became a woman.” Really?! Just like that? To be cheerfully muddled?!
Finding Solace after Bereavement
The sudden death of loved ones is a unifying aspect of both stories. They all find awkward support from each other, and one finds solace in kitchens and food, another in jogging (and the river that had divided them, been their meeting place, and was ultimately where they were separated for ever).
“I felt that I was the only person alive and moving in a world brought to a stop. Houses always feel like that after someone has died.”
If I had lost a parent, partner or child, maybe I’d have been more engaged with this book, but I suspect my experience would be so different as to be barely comparable. I’m grateful that I’m not in the position to compare.
Still, this helpfully explains that losing a partner is even worse than losing a dog or a bird! So I’ve learned something.
There were glimpses of something deeper. When overtly self-analytical, I don’t think they worked, but some were genuinely poignant and thought-provoking.
Mikage was an orphan, raised by her grandmother: “I was always aware that my family consisted of only one other person. The space that cannot be filled, no matter how cheerfully a child and an old person live together – the deathly silence that, panting in the corner of the room, pushes its way in like a shudder.” (The punctuation is a little odd, though.)
Reality, Magical Realism, Dreams
Both stories have a dash of this. In the first, it’s a dream that might be a premonition; in the second, there’s an ethereal character who (maybe) shows another character a little gap in time.
* “Far off in the pale sky, thin clouds gently flowed, suspended.”
* “It was the kind of frozen morning in which mood shadows seem to be pasted on the sky.”
* “She was someone whose face told you nothing.”
* “The little girl, whose face epitomized ‘grandchild’.”
* “Her power was the brilliance of her charm” which “condemned her to an ice-cold loneliness.”
* “The sound of raindrops began to fall in the transparent stillness of the evening.”
* Traditional housewives “had been taught, probably by caring parents, not to exceed the boundaries of their happiness”.
* “On the deserted bridge, with the city misted over by the blue haze of dawn, my eyes absently followed the white embankment that continued on to who knows where. I rested, enveloped by the sound of the current.”
* “I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without that, I am not alive.” Hmmm.