Tag Archives: Record of a Night Too Brief

Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami (transl. Louise Heal Kawai): In the eye of the beholder

Mieko Kawakami is one of Haruki Murakami’s favourite young writers which made her novella hard to resist for me. Ms Ice Sandwich is the latest in a series published by Pushkin Press showcasing Japanese authors. I’ve only got around to reviewing one other– Hiromi Kawakami’s surreal Record of a Night Too Brief – which leaves four more to explore.

Our unnamed narrator is just at the point where his classmates are beginning to giggle and gossip about sex, making him feel uncomfortable. He counts his way along the white line leading to the supermarket where he’s bought two egg sandwiches every day of the summer holidays from a taciturn young woman with enormous eyes and a taste for electric blue eye shadow. Those eyes fascinate him, triggering a memory of the dogs in the story his mother once read him to send him to sleep, or perhaps it was his father. His mother pays him little attention now, too caught up in her own preoccupations. Instead, he tells his ailing grandmother all about Ms Ice Sandwich, spending his evenings perfecting her portrait. When he hears his classmates ridiculing her he stops his daily purchases, puzzled by their description of her as a freak, until his friend Tutti persuades him to pay one more visit before he misses the chance of seeing Ms Ice Sandwich ever again.

Child narrators are extraordinarily tricky to pull off but Kawakami does it beautifully in this funny, touching story. Our endearingly thoughtful narrator spends a good deal of his time in a state of puzzlement at the behaviour of other people from which we readers can infer a great deal: his widowed mother has lost herself in tarot readings and astrology; motherless Tutti spends her evenings watching violent films with her dad. His befuddlement is neatly balanced by the mature, clear-eyed Tutti who ultimately saves the day. Kawakami’s brief novella ends poignantly but on a note of hope for both of them.

This is my last review for 2017 – although not my last post – and it’s a rather lovely one with which to round off the year. This year’s blogging has been much more about books from small presses than previous ones. I’ve long felt that independent publishers offer more interesting reading than the conglomerates, something which seems to be increasingly true, at least for me.

To those of you looking forward to Christmas, I hope you have a lovely time. If, as it is for many, it’s a more complicated time of the year for you, I hope it passes as painlessly as possible. And for those of you in retail or catering who’ve been working your socks off – I hope you get some rest before you start all over again.

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Lucy North): Three strange stories

Cover imageHiromi Kawakami’s quietly charming tale of a young, slightly awkward woman and her eccentric colleagues, The Nakano Thrift Shop, was one of my books of last year. It’s written in the same understated style as the rather more melancholic Strange Weather in Tokyo, a style of which I’m particularly fond. Unsurprisingly, I was hoping for more of it from the three stories that comprise Record of a Night Too Brief but these somewhat disconcerting tales, first published in Japan over twenty years ago, are very different.

In the titular story a woman begins her long night, irritated by the itch of darkness around her shoulders, opening her mouth to rail against it but finding herself only able to whinny: she’s become a horse. It’s the first of several transformations in this increasingly bizarre night which includes encounters with a singer as tall as a three-story building, a kiwi firing irascible questions and a man spilling moles from his pockets who turns out to be one in a suit. Our narrator is accompanied on her journey by a girl she seems to love, lose, consume and destroy by turns – her alter ego, perhaps, or maybe not. In comparison, ‘Missing’ seems almost prosaic. A young woman’s brother disappears but no one else seems much concerned. When her middle brother marries his sibling’s fiancée, things begin to go awry in a strange and unexpected way. The third story sees Hiwako stepping on a snake on her way to work, opening up a terrifying world in which snakes use their sinuous wiles to seduce humans into coming over to their side. Resistance it seems comes at a high price.

Of the three, ‘Record of a Night Too Brief’ is the most surreal of these richly imaginative, sometimes perplexing stories. The dreamer inhabits an Alice in Wonderland world in which she frequently becomes something else, finds herself discombobulated or is the butt of unjustified annoyance. Both the gentle humour and understated writing familiar to me from Kawakami’s novels are more apparent in ‘Missing’ and ‘A Snake Stepped On’, although the effect is to make the fantastical turn these stories take all the more striking: ‘Since disappearances happen all the time in my family, we got used to it pretty quickly’; ‘The thought of raw fish prepared by a snake was simply too creepy to take’. Quite a challenging translation job for Lucy North, I imagine. Not what I was expecting then, but I’m glad I read these strange yet beguiling stories. The book’s biographical notes suggest that Kawakami has written many more novels and short stories which leaves me wondering how many others are characterised by the same surreal style.