The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (transl. Allison Markin Powell): An endearing little gem

Cover imageThree years ago I reviewed Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo, praising the publishers for its splendid jacket and I’m delighted to see that they’ve used the same designer for The Nakano Thrift Shop. It’s not the only thing this quietly charming novel has in common with Kawakami’s previous book: it’s also narrated by an introverted, slightly awkward young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances.

Mr Nakano’s shop has been open for over twenty-five years. Sometimes it’s busy, sometimes quiet but there’s always something to keep Hitomi occupied, whether it’s speculating about the regular customer who turns out to have eloped with a schoolgirl years ago or selling the many household bits and pieces acquired by Mr Nakano and Takeo. Hitomi is a little socially awkward but in comparison with the taciturn Takeo whose most likely utterance is ‘Sorry’, she’s a shining example of confidence and self-possession. As these two stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister Masayo cheers them on from the side lines. Mr Nakano has his own romantic troubles, although at times he seems blissfully unaware of the emotional damage he’s wreaking. As the year wears on, Mr Nakano becomes increasingly entangled, Masayo pops in regularly exerting a magnetic attraction for customers, Takeo keeps himself awkwardly to himself and Hitomi wonders about everyone else’s love life while finding her own increasingly perplexing. A few things are bought and sold.

Written in quietly understated prose infused with a gentle humour, Kawakami’s novel is an absolute delight. The four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging. Mr Nakano has a tendency to launch into sudden gnomic pronouncements, a continuance of his internal monologue, often eliciting a dumbfounded ‘What?’ from the astonished Hitomi. Masayo sagely offers romantic advice despite her own troubles while Takeo is both enigmatic and exasperating. The star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Over the course of a year, these four become woven into the fabric of each other’s lives. It’s an episodic novel, held together neatly by a series of objects which provide the focus for each chapter. There’s a nice little catch-up in the final chapter, three years after Hitomi’s year in the shop, and the ending is all you could wish for. I loved it – a welcome antidote to the twenty-four-hour misery cycle that is our news at the moment, and a reminder that joy can to be found in the most prosaic of lives.

22 thoughts on “The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (transl. Allison Markin Powell): An endearing little gem”

    1. Yes, I think that’s a good comparison, Annabel. Her previous novel was a little melancholic but this one is quite joyful. I hope you love it as much as I did.

    1. I’m sure you’ll love it, too. Strange Weather was gorgeously written but had that hint of melancholy about whereas this is a joyful treat. Well worth the wait!

  1. Sounds lovely, Susan. At first, I was a little worried that this might be too similar to Strange Weather (which I liked a great deal), but it sounds as though you think there’s enough differentiation here. Recognisably from the same writer, but more uplifting in tone than Strange Weather – would that be about right?

    1. Yes, I’d say that’s spot on, Jacqui. It lacks that melancholic streak that haunted Strange Weather. Hitomi is such an engaging narrator, too.

  2. I am very tempted to buy the book based on the cover alone; I too love the levitating woman’ photographs by Natsumi Hayashi which are being used in this series. These are some other great pictures by her:
    and her blog is here:

    I very much enjoyed Strange Weather in Tokyo and will doubtless read this one too as it sounds like another excellent book (and very pretty on the shelf too!). Are we all just suckers for a great cover? I think I am.

    1. Thanks for the links, Belinda. They’re wonderful pictures. I think the right cover greatly enhances a book.

  3. Everything about this sounds wonderful, from the prose to the characters – I’ve added it to my list! Your review has reminded me that I have Strange Weather in Tokyo on there too which I must get round to reading.

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