Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Books – Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto

I have tried (and I think succeeded) to only review twenty-first century literature on this blog, in keeping with my endeavours to break free from the beautiful clasps of my old favourite, Victorian Literature. However, every now and then an exception must be made. When I read this pair of novellas a couple of weeks ago, I decided there was no way I could not review them. They’re too thoroughly beautiful. And at least this week’s review is of a book written in the 1980s, so I’m not going too far back.

Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, a book featuring two novellas – ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ – was published in Japan in 1987 and translated into English in 1993. Both stories deal with essentially similar themes – love, loss, family, transsexuality, solitude and above all grief.

‘Kitchen’ centres on Mikage, a young woman who is taken in by a neighbouring family after the death of her grandmother, her last surviving relative. The novella explores her relationship with Yuichi Tanabe and his mother Eriko (who was born a man), both while Mikage lives with them and afterwards. It’s a solemn and yet thoroughly lovely story, brought to life by the fabulous and deep characters of Mikage, Yuichi and Eriko. I love Eriko, and Yoshimoto describes both of her life as a man and later as a woman with a deft and matter-of-fact style that makes her sympathetic and lovable. And Yuichi has a fascinating and well-drawn ambiguity throughout. Another thing I love about this novella is the recurring motif of kitchens and food. The first line is ‘The place I like best in this world is the kitchen.’ Food is described in a wonderfully tender way in this story. It is food which Eriko and Mikage first bond over, with later Yuichi and Mikage share. It’s a nice touch that makes the story feel even more real.

‘Moonlight Shadow’ tells the story of Satsuki, a young woman trying to cope after the death of her long-term boyfriend Hitoshi. It is one of the most poignant things I have read for a long time, a story filled with a profound sense of loneliness, captured brilliantly by a solemn narrative style. But it isn’t an angry story. In a way the novella is written very softly, so that grief, while sad and painful, is here made beautiful too. What is perhaps most touching thing about it for me is the relationship between Satsuki and Hitoshi’s brother Hiiragi, whose girlfriend died in the same car accident as Hitoshi. They act as each other’s surrogate family in hard times and, as in ‘Kitchen’, I like how they find some solace in food. Urara too is intriguing, though I feel like she as a character plays more of a functional role than any other (although perhaps that is the point, for she perhaps isn’t quite supposed to be human).

I always find there’s something wonderfully simple in the language of the Japanese writers I read. It’s hard to tell if it’s the style of Japanese literature or simply the writers I happened to have stumbled – or if it’s a translation thing. I know that English tends to have a lot more synonyms than many other languages, but I don’t know enough about Japanese to know if the linguistic and narrative style I so love in writers like Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami and Yasushi Inoue is to do with the language their works were originally written in. Nonetheless, it remains that I love the simple, poignant style in which Kitchen is written. We are so often told, as writers, to “show don’t tell,” and sometimes Yoshimoto shows, and sometimes she tells – but her description of the feelings of her characters is always explained in such a beautifully poignant way that I can’t fault it. It works.

The two novellas, ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ both deal with and explore grief and loss in an incredibly moving way. They are in a way both very sad stories, but there is something in them that so poignantly explains sorrow, that deals with coming to terms with and peace with that unhappiness, that they are so much more than sad. The sadness and grief of the central characters becomes not depressing but beautiful. What I really love about these stories is that, even though ‘Moonlight Shadow’ contains some element of the supernatural, the characters in each novella, and the grief they feel, reads as incredibly real. You believe in these people, you sympathise with them. It is this which adds to the beauty of these stories.

Overall, I probably preferred ‘Kitchen’, the first novella, perhaps in part because it’s longer and you can get into it more, but I found ‘Moonlight Shadow’ incredibly moving. Indeed, I almost cried on the tube. (Why is it that I always end up reading the most emotion bits of books while on public transport?) I had to stare very hard at other people’s shoes as a remedy. But anyway, I sort of feel these two novellas should be taken as one. They’re not always published together, but I understand they generally are. To me at least they belong together. They share not only their central themes and motifs, but have a similar tone, a similar beauty and poignancy, a wondrous way of exploring sadness and grief.

Greatest strength: The sheer beauty and subtly with which Banana Yoshimoto explores the theme of grief.

Greatest weakness: I don’t have many complaints, because I was overwhelmed by these stories. I suppose I would have liked some greater development of Urara in ‘Moonlight Shadow’, but this is a minor point, and anyway I can’t tell if it would truly benefit the story or might spoil it.

Let’s finish on a quote: Why is it we have so little choice? We live like the lowliest worms. Always defeated – defeated we make dinner, we eat, we sleep. Everyone we love is dying. Still to cease living is unacceptable.

Next week: Unthology 6, edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones

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