Book Review Rewind: Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Japan Lit Chal 7 - DolBelDolce Bellezza is currently hosting the 7th incarnation of the Japanese Literature Challenge.  As this challenge started in June and runs through January 30, 2014, I’m quite unfashionably late to the party.  But as I am currently reading (or rather, rereading) a Japanese work, the time seems right to get involved.

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I originally read and reviewed Kitchen in 2012, and I found it both engaging and emotionally satisfying. Currently, a book group I am part of is reading/discussing the book, so I’m re-reading – something I don’t often do.  I am loving it all over again and will post an update with any new thoughts I have on this second go-around.  This is my original review from my first read, so I have something to compare with my thoughts with after the re-read.

 

KitchenTitle: Kitchen
Author: Banana Yoshimoto
First Published: 1988 (Japan; English translation 2006)
Reviewed: 2012 (original; rereading now & will update with thoughts on 2nd read)
Rating: 4.5/5

Reading this brief duet – a novella and a companion short story – brought me a breath of fresh literary air. The emotions were so authentic and the characters so delicately-drawn that I felt cleansed by my reading. After many heavy, word-thick reads, Banana Yoshimoto’s clean, bright prose was refreshing and heart-lifting, and she never veers into the maudlin or the saccharin.

The novella, Kitchen, is the real star here, and the paired story, Moonlight Shadow, serves to follow up on related themes. In Kitchen, we meet Mikage, all alone in the world after losing her parents as a child, her grandfather as a young teen, and finally her grandmother now that she is in her university years. Her path crosses with that of Yuichi, who trains in biology while working at the floral shop Mikage’s grandmother loved to frequent, and Yuichi’s mother, who has led a colorful, many-layered life. Together, they explore several shades of grief, regret, longing, and hope, and woven through it all are kitchens, both literal and symbolic, which are where Mikage truly feels at home.

This book could have been a terrible downer, but Yoshimoto somehow manages to make a study of grief and loss feel hopeful and uplifting, with a strong sense of rebirth. The effect is actually a bit magical, and there is a touch of the sort of quirky, bittersweet magical realism that graces the movie Amélie and the other works of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. There is also some kinship with the quiet side of Haruki Murakami’s work. The story’s form takes shape on a framework of the sort of placid strength and quiet resilience that is to me, if not uniquely, then certainly distinctly Japanese.

Taking Kitchen together as a pair with the short story that shares the volume, Moonlight Shadow, my overall rating would be  4.5 out of 5. I didn’t love the hard jolt of the transition between the novella and the paired short story. I would grant the novella Kitchen 5 stars as a standalone work and Moonlight Shadow 4 stars as a self-contained entity. The story – of a girl whose lover died far too young and who has a strange, transformative experience – also deals with loss and grief and longing, but the abrupt stop between the two story worlds, which do not share characters, didn’t fully work for me.

All in all, I highly recommend this quick read, and I will enthusiastically seek out more of the author’s work. There is something indescribable at play between the lines of Yoshimoto’s prose, and I find its pull irresistible.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review Rewind: Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

  1. Oh, I love your review! You said so succinctly how I experienced this novella for myself: bright and crisp, not a downer though dealing with some dreadful emotions, somehow hopeful despite it all. I have not read it in quite some time, and sadly (for me) I gave my copy away when I was giving prizes for the challenge. However, I can easily see reading it again as it was my first introduction to Banana Yoshimoto, and quite a satisfying one at that. So glad to have your participation!

    Reply
  2. Having read Kitchen this year, I loved reading your review. My first Banana Yoshimoto book was The Lake and I’ve read it three times already. The latter is still my favorite but Kitchen comes in second 🙂

    Reply
  3. i got excited that this could be a new addition to my world literature reading list. but then I found it’s not a full novel – I struggle with short stories unfortunately. do you have any other recommendations for Japanese authors?

    Reply
    • Kitchen is a novella with one short story bundled at the end. It felt full to me, not like a collection, but your experience may be different, of course.

      Hmm… I know it’s almost cliche to say so, but I love Haruki Murakami. For more standard “literary” fiction (avoiding his stranger, more surreal stuff) Norwegian Wood is probably a good place to start, as well as his collections, such as The Elephant Vanishes. I also loved After Dark, which I reviewed here.

      For more classic authors, I adore Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. I love his collection Seven Japanese Tales, although it does include some very dark stories, and his book A Cat, a Man and Two Women was both charming and insightful on human nature. The Makioka Sisters is considered a classic family saga, although I haven’t finished it. (I’ve loved what I’ve read so far.)

      For beautiful, insightful and often funny personal musings, I recommend The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon. It is one of my favorites. Completed in year 1002, it is the diaries/personal journals of a court lady in Heian Japan. My favorite parts are the wonderful lists she includes.

      A couple of years ago I was blown away by a little book called Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura. It was so poignant and affecting, with a plotline I hadn’t encountered before. It tells of the unusual way a small boy’s village has managed to survive harsh times, and it really made me feel for everyone involved on all sides.

      For evocative descriptions of place and delicate explorations of Japanese society and relationships, Yasunari Kawabata.

      One of my favorite current references for Japanese Lit: Dolce Bellezza maintains a great list of recommended reads for her Japanese Literature challenges, with links to many reviews. It can be found here at the dedicated challenge blog (separate from Bellezza’s main book blog.)

      Reply

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