The Different Levels (and Anxieties) of Intimacy
In our quotidian existence, we encounter a lot of people. Some leave an imprint, some stir a memory, while some create quite an impression. As we carefully observe them, there are nuances that we notice which they might have missed. We are secure in this knowledge, so loose yet so intimate, because it bears no consequence on both parties; we are strangers after all. This intimacy gives a different sense of knowledge, a subtle form of ecstasy.
Renowned Japanese novelist Hiromi Kawakami tries to simulate this intimate knowledge through her work, The Nakano Thrift Shop. In a commercial street of suburban Tokyo lies the quaint thrift shop, not an antique shop, owned by the idiosyncratic Mr. NHaruo akano. To the naked eye, the thrift shop and its offerings look ordinary. However, there is more than meets the eye. When one looks beyond the ordinary, one can see the undertones of many secrets embedded on every item.
In this shop, an unusual set of characters has converged. Even though everything that is happening around them seem mundane, the characters formed a unique and special bond. Narrated through the perspective of the naïve but transcendental narrator, Hitomi, the novel chronicles these day-to-day travails in the suburban shop. The Nakano Thrift Shop is Hitomi’s rough interpretation of the things that were happening around her.
The backbone of the story is Hitomi’s intricate and equally animated observations of the daily events and transactions that occur in the shop. With the coming in and coming out of every customer, Hitomi becomes enamored into their individual stories. Her innate curiosity made her a keen observer. It is this insatiable appetite for knowing that distinguishes Hitomi and makes her relatable. It is this desire for knowing that developed into a different kind of intimacy between and amongst the characters and the different allegories they are surrounded with.
It is not on the bigger scenes that the novel fascinates. The novel’s propulsive facet is its take on the mundane details of everyday living. The Nakano Thrift Shop riveted the reader with these seemingly mediocre transactions and negotiations. From simple gestures, Kawakami, through Hitomi (who could be deemed as a representation of the author) conjured an interesting and inviting atmosphere. The novel focuses on these interactions and dialogues. Kawakami captured every interaction and weaved it into a simple but unique tapestry.
Related on a first-person perspective, the story also offers an intimate peek into the lives of the characters. The animated but enigmatic Mr. Nakano is the initial subject of Hitomi’s fascination. But as the story moves forward, Hitomi is slowly revolving into a subject of fascination herself as she falls for one of her coworkers, the equally enigmatic and oddly reserved Takeo. Hitomi is just like any of us, full of unabashed curiosity and humanly antics. It all made for an entertaining read.
Just like her fellow Japanese author, Kawakami digressed from the literary norms. On the technical aspect, the novel’s structure is one of its better facets. Staying loyal to the “thrift shop” theme, the chapters were anchored on different objects such as a bowl, a paper weight, an envelope and a sewing machine. These maybe ordinary things but each held a mystery and story that sets it apart from other items in the shop. Just like people, imprinted on these items are chromosomes that make them stand out. Kawakami gave these inanimate objects, with each resonating a story that is captivating.
Taken at face value, Hitomi’s observations are inconsequential. As one digs deeper into the narrative, there is an anxiety of intimacy amongst the characters. Emotional or physical attachment is equated to a paralyzing fear. This is in stark dichotomy to the intimacy of knowledge that hovers above most of the story. The novel underlined the different levels of intimate relationships through the different characters. Moreover, the novel vividly captured certain nuances and peculiarities of Japanese culture and society.
As riveting as the storytelling is, Kawakami tried to push the envelope a little bit too far. As interesting as EACH chapter and EACH object is, there seems to be a growing disconnect as the readers journeys deeper into the novel. Each chapter was mostly independent on its own. Kawakami gave vignettes but the disjointed storytelling dampened the overall impact of the narrative. The novel had so much push and pull that it could be an effort unraveling it. Kawakami’s acuity of the ordinary was stellar, however.
As one journeys through the world of literature, the ordinary reader can’t help but notice how authors almost always try to take on the extraordinary. The same cannot be said about traditional Japanese authors who, often times, frame and box the seemingly ordinary and turn it into stellar works of fiction. The Nakano Thrift Shop possesses that familiar slice-of-life genre that is common in Japanese literature. The granules of these seemingly ordinary events, transactions and interactions are what propels Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop.
As always, the Japanese brand of literature is a breath of fresh air. I was initially riveted by the narrative. But as I read further, there was something amiss. Yes, each chapter can be taken as a separate story by itself. And that is my crux: the novel was more like a collection of short stories than a complete novel. The result is ephemeral and did not linger. Moreover, the denouement is thoroughly disappointing. Its lackluster is an antithesis to the colorful characters and items the novel is populated with. I guess I was expecting too much from this work because of the good things I have read and heard of it; good thing it was a pleasurable read.
On the other hand, I heard Kawakami’s other works are better so I might give her another chance.
Author: Hiromi Kawakami
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Publisher: Europa Editions
Publishing Date: 2014
Number of Pages: 229 pages
Genre: Domestic Fiction, Humorous Fiction
Objects for sale at the Nakano Thrift Shop appear as commonplace as the staff and customers that handle them. But like those same customers and staff, they hold many secrets. If observed more closely, they show the signs of innumerable extravagancies, of immeasurable pleasure and pain, of the deep mysteries of the human heart.
Hitomi, the inexperienced young woman who works the register at Mr. Nakano’s thrift shop, has fallen for her coworker, the oddly reserved Takeo. Unsure of how to win his affections, she seeks advice rom her employer’s sister, Masayo, whose sentimental entanglements make her a rather unconventional mentor. But thanks to Masayo, Hitomi will come to understand that love and intimacy require acceptance not only of idiosyncrasies but also of the delicate waltz between open and hidden secrets.
Animating each delicately rendered chapter in Kawakami’s playful novel is Mr. Nakano himself, an original, entertaining, and enigmatic creation whose compulsive mannerisms, secretive love life, and impulsive behavior defy all expectations. With a cast of delightfully offbeat characters, The Nakano Thrift Shop is a generous-hearted portrayal of human relationships by one of Japan’s most beloved authors.
About the Author
(Photo by Huffington Post) Hiromi Kawakami was born on April 1, 1958 in Tokyo Japan and grew up in the Takaido neighborhood of Suginami City. In 1980, she graduated from Ochanomizu Women’s College.
Kawakami’s writing career immediately begun after graduating from college. Her first job was writing and editing a Japanese science fiction magazine, NW-SF. This magazine also published her first short story, Shoshimoku (Diptera) in 1980. In spite of this early success, it wasn’t until 1994 that she officially debuted as a literary fiction writer with Kamisama (God), a short story collection. Two years later, Hebi wo fumi (Tread on snake) won the Akutagawa Prize, a prestigious Japanese literary award.
More success followed when Sensei no kaban (The Briefcase or Strange Weather in Tokyo) won the 2001 Tanizaki Prize. The novel was also shortlisted for the 2013 Man Asian Literary Prize and the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Her novel Oboreru (Drowning) won both the 2000 Ito Sei Literature Award and the 2000 Joryu Bungaku Sho (Women Writer’s Prize).
Kawakami is currently residing in Tokyo, Japan.