Dolce 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.
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.
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.