My next Women in Translation Month read is ‘The Nakano Thrift Shop’ by Hiromi Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell. I really enjoyed reading Strange Weather in Tokyo a couple of years ago (also known as ‘The Briefcase’ in the United States) and I was pleased to see another novel by Kawakami published by Portobello Books earlier this month with another excellent cover design by Natsumi Hayashi. Originally released in Japan in 2005, ‘The Nakano Thrift Shop’ tells the story of Hitomi Suganuma who starts working as a cashier selling second-hand goods in a thrift shop owned by the mysterious Haruo Nakano. He has several ex-wives and is having an affair with Sakiko while his older sister Masaya is an artist who regularly pops in and offers guidance. Meanwhile, Hitomi is largely preoccupied with another employee, the introverted Takeo, who helps Mr Nakano with house clearances.
If you have already read ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’, then you can expect a lot more of the same from ‘The Nakano Thrift Shop’. The overall atmosphere is very similar while the only significant difference is that Hitomi and Takeo’s relationship is less central to the book than that of Tsukiko and Sensei. Kawakami’s fiction has been described as quirky, eccentric and offbeat which certainly applies to the entertaining cast of characters who come to the shop. However, the story is not as frivolous and whimsical as it first appears as there is also a sense of hesitancy and vagueness underneath the surface particularly where characters like Takeo are concerned.
Each chapter takes its title from an object which is sold in the shop. The book as a whole reads more like a collection of interlinked short stories about the comings and goings of various customers and employees with relatively little in the way of a linear plot. Kawakami moves easily between moments of humour and more profound meditations on relationships. The chapter ‘Apples’ is a good example of this, beginning with an amusingly deadpan exchange between Mr Nakano and an awkward customer who wants to sell his goods for wildly inflated prices through an online auction before moving on to a conversation between Hitomi and Masaya about the disappearance of Mr Maruyama and whether or not there is a connection between sexual desire and loneliness.
‘The Nakano Thrift Shop’ is an ideal introduction for those who are new to Japanese fiction, or for those who are looking for something a little less surreal than the early novels of Haruki Murakami and a lot less intimidating than something like Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe. It could be a possible contender for next year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist (yes, I’m thinking ahead already) following the shortlisting of ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014, but we will have to wait until March to find out.