A Perfect Day to Be Alone by Nanae Aoyama (transl. Jesse Kirkwood): A poignant, funny coming-of-age story

Cover image for A Perfect Day to Be Alone by Nanae AoyamaNanae Aoyama’s A Perfect Day to Be Alone is already a bestseller in several European countries, translated into German, French and Italian before Jesse Kirkwood’s English version. Spanning a year in which twenty-year-old Chizu lives with an elderly distant relative, it’s a quiet coming-of-age story.

It turned out that when you put three people with no conversation skills in the same place, all it did was ramp up the awkwardness of the ensuing silence.

When her mother decides to take part in a Chinese teacher exchange, Chizu needs to find somewhere to live. Aged twenty, disaffected and socially awkward, she’s no idea what to do with her life. Ginko lives on the outskirts of Tokyo, widowed early in life and used to the family sending young people to live with her. Chizu has never been to her house or met her, presenting herself to the quiet seventy-one-year-old who answers the door with no introduction other than a phone call from her mother. She’s somewhat taken aback by the gallery of cat photographs that lines her bedroom walls, intolerant of Ginko’s eccentricities and not above letting her know it, and given to fits of spite which Ginko chooses to ignore. Determined to boost her savings, for what she really doesn’t know, Chizu finds work first as a hostess then in a railway kiosk. Over the year she stays with her relative, Chizu breaks up with her sort of boyfriend, has her heart broken and comes to understand that Ginko’s life is not as tedious as she might have thought before setting about beginning her own.

I felt like if I went out onto the platform, and called to her, it would be years util my voice reached the garden.

Nothing much happens in Aoyama’s understated novella narrated in Chizu’s laconic, deadpan voice but her protagonist changes a great deal in the year she spends with Ginko, arriving resentful and dismissive of this woman who leads a life which couldn’t be more boring. Chizu finds herself astonished that older people might fall in love albeit with less obsessive passion than she does with the handsome Fujita, amazed when Ginko makes herself up and puts on a pretty dress when her dancing partner begins to call. Beneath her apparent uncaring persona lies a vulnerable young woman, keen to grow a thick skin to protect herself from hurt, an idea Ginko gently dismisses. Aoyama wrote her novel when she was just twenty-four making me wonder how much of herself she’d put into it. It brought to mind Nick Bradley’s Four Seasons in Japan, another coming-of-age story in which a young, disaffected narrator goes to live with an ageing relative although Ginko and Ayako, the mountain-climbing grandmother of Bradley’s novel, couldn’t be more different. I’d recommend both books, each of them enjoyable in their very different ways.

Maclehose Press Harpenden 9781529427684 160 pages Paperback

14 thoughts on “A Perfect Day to Be Alone by Nanae Aoyama (transl. Jesse Kirkwood): A poignant, funny coming-of-age story”

  1. The premise of this book reminds me of the book by Swedish writer Tove Jansson called The Summer Book. Published in 1972 and reissued 2 years ago. In her book the girl is younger, but its such a beautiful story about an intergenerational relationship between the bolshy young girl and her grandmother. You would think you were with them on the island in Sweden. Magical.

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