Tag Archives: The Nakano Thrift Shop

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2017: Part One

Cover imageThere’s a fair old mix of attention-snagging titles published in paperback this June. I’ll start with one that was hotly anticipated in hardback: Peter Ho Davies’ The Fortunes, his first novel since the much-lauded The Welsh Girl back in 2007. Spanning 150 years, Davies’ novel explores the Chinese-American experience through the lens of four characters: Ah Ling, the son of a prostitute, sent alone to California as a young boy in the 1860s; Anna Mae Wong, the first Chinese Hollywood movie star; Vincent Chin murdered in 1982 just because he looked Japanese and John Ling Smith, visiting America to adopt a child. Apparently, Davies has mixed real and fictional characters, drawing on his own mixed-race experience in what sounds like fascinating read, and that’s a great jacket.

Jade Chang’s The Wangs Vs the World looks at Chinese-Americans in a very different way. Set in 2008 with the financial world about to crash with the loudest of bangs, it’s about a family whose cosmetics mogul father suddenly finds himself bankrupt in a country he thought he’d made his own. He decides to claim his fabled ancestral land in China but first he needs to gather his family together, taking off on a road trip across the States in his first wife’s powder blue 1980s Mercedes. Chang makes some serious points along the way in this funny, entertaining novel.Cover image

Families – albeit a hugely dysfunctional one – and money are also the themes which run through Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest. The Plumbs have been counting on a windfall from the fund their father set up for them many years ago. What the financially compromised younger siblings have not been expecting is the plundering of their treasured Nest by their mother to get their eldest brother Leo out of trouble. Sweeney’s novel follows these four over the three months after Leo gets out of rehab until the longed-for payout day. A well-turned out, entertaining and absorbing piece of fiction which quietly delivers a serious message about money and expectations.

Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk also has a foot in dysfunctional family territory, exploring ‘the violently primal bond between mother and daughter’ according to its publishers. It’s set in Spain where the daughter has taken her mother to an alternative clinic in the hope of discovering a cure for her paralysis which may or may not be psychologically induced. While her mother undergoes a series of odd treatments, the daughter becomes caught up in ‘the seductive mercurial games of those around her’. That synopsis isn’t entirely up my street but Levy has been praised by so many people whose opinions I trust that it’s worth a try.

Cover imageI’ll end this first June paperback instalment with Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop, about colleagues so immersed in each other’s lives they come to seem like family. The socially awkward Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside the taciturn Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances. As these two stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister Masayo cheers them on from the side lines. Written in quietly understated prose infused with a gentle humour, Kawakami’s novel is an absolute delight. One of my favourite books of last year. it’s a reminder that joy can to be found in the most prosaic of lives.

A click on a title will take you to my review  for The Wangs Vs the World, The Nest and The Nakano Thrift Shop or to a more detailed synopsis for those I haven’t yet read, should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with June’s new titles they’re here.  Second paperback batch to follow shortly…

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.

Books of the Year 2016: Part Four

Cover imageThis final books of the year post leapfrogs from August to October. Not sure what happened in September but I suspect it may have something to do with riding the Central European railways for several weeks. October’s reading made up for it starting with Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, to which I had been looking forward a little warily after a few disappointments with Patchett’s novels in recent years. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel crisscrosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

I had similar reservations about Donal Ryan’s third novel. Both his previous books had been praised to the skies which raised my expectations too high to be met, I suspect. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded. Written in gorgeously lyrical prose, All We Shall Know tells the story of Melody Shee’s pregnancy and the unexpected friendship she finds with a young Traveller woman. The story is structured in brief chapters, Cover imageeach one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. Ryan’s writing is clear and clean yet often poetic and his ear for dialect is superb – characteristics familiar from his previous novels – but what stood out in this one was his story telling. For me, it’s his best novel yet.

Expectations were sky-high for Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist A Whole Life, which told the tale of one man’s life lived almost exclusively in an Austrian alpine village, was one of my books of last year. Beginning in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria, The Tobacconist is very much darker, following the progress of a young man from his country bumpkin arrival in Vienna where he takes up an apprenticeship. As Franz’s character develops, Seethaler shows us Vienna through eyes which become increasingly appalled by what they see, often using simple slapstick comedy to throw the dreadful events unfolding into stark relief. Plain, clipped writing is studded with vivid images, all beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins who did such a fine job on A Whole Life.

Cover imageThis year is rounded off with a November favourite: Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle which celebrates the introduction of the NHS through the stories of a set of patients suffering from tuberculosis in a rather posh sanatorium, all of them hopeful that the new treatment rumoured to be on its way to Britain will save them. Grant portrays a subtle subversion of the status quo through the Gwendo’s inmates, many of whom come in contact with people of a different class and race for the first time. It’s a richly satisfying piece of storytelling with a bright thread of humour running through it and a cast of vivid, sharply observed characters .

And if I had to choose? I think it would come down to Kim Echlin’s beautiful paean of praise to female friendship Under the Visible Life, Ann Patchett’s immensely satisfying Commonwealth, or Hiromi Kawakami’s quietly charming The Nakano Thrift Shop. Who knows what 2017 will bring – I fervently hope that it will be better for the world than 2016 – but whatever it is at least there will always be books and storytelling to solace ourselves with, if only for a little while.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three books of the year posts for 2016 they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Next week it’ll be time to look forward to what’s on offer in January.

Books of the Year 2016: Part Three

Cover imageJust one July favourite this year although August brought an embarrassment of riches with five splendid novels. July’s title was Jane Rogers’ Conrad and Eleanor, a nuanced portrait of a marriage in which traditional male/female roles are upended. Eleanor is engaged in medical research as is Conrad but while she is a star in her particular sphere, his work has stalled. When Conrad fails to return from the conference he is supposed to be attending, Eleanor is forced to take a long hard look at their marriage . It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing novel. Rogers resists any fairy tale ending, instead offering her readers an entirely plausible resolution.

There’s a kind of resolution in Marie Sizun’s painfully autobiographical Her Father’s Daughter, written from the point of view of the titular daughter, named France but known throughout as ‘the child’, who is just over four years old when the it opens, living in cosy, indulgent intimacy with her mother. When her father returns from the war her mother’s focus shifts and the daughter must learn to live in an entirely different world, deprived of affection and often violent. There’s an intense immediacy to Sizun’s writing, sharpening the effect of the child’s stark observations. It’s a beautifully expressed piece of writing – spare, wrenching and utterly engrossing.

The pain and puzzlement suffered by daughters is a theme in Sara Taylor’s second novel The Lauras, much anticipated after her excellent debut The Shore. Like The Shore, The Lauras is stuffed full of stories as Alex looks back on two years spent on the road as an adolescent. As they crisscross the USA, Alex’s mother tells stories about her life before Alex, packed with adventure and misadventure. At each destination, scores are settled, longstanding promises Cover imagefulfilled and debts repaid. Throughout it all runs the theme of identity – Alex’s determined decision not to identify as male or female, her mother’s sexual ambiguity and rootlessness – all handled with an enviable deftness.

The theme of mother/child relationships also runs through Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s very fine debut, Harmless Like You. After his father dies, Jay finds that the family home in Connecticut has been bequeathed to Yuki, his Japanese mother who left it when he was two years old. As the executor of his father’s will, Jay must hand over the deed in person. Beginning in 1968 when Yuki was sixteen, Buchanan’s novel tells the story of how a mother came to do the unthinkable and leave her infant son. Buchanan’s writing is often very striking, her images vibrantly colourful. She underpins the book’s poignancy with a wry humour, neatly avoiding any sentimental conclusions. Let’s hope there’s a second novel in the works.

One of my favourite writers, Ron Rash hails from the Appalachians and it’s there that he sets his award-winning novels with their smalltown mountain backdrop similar to Kent Haruf’s Holt, Colorado. His latest novel, Above the Waterfall, is about Les Clary, the local sheriff whose final case sees him repaying a childhood debt in a most unorthodox fashion. The writing is gorgeous – at times lyrical, at times stark – but there’s much more than polished prose to this morally complex novel. It’s a mature work: beautifully executed, compassionate yet unflinching in its portrayal of human frailties and utterly convincing.

Cover imageAltogether more gentle, Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop is narrated by a 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. The four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging but the star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Very little happens in this charming novel but it’s an absolute joy and the ending is all you could hope for. Just what was needed after the multitude of barbs that 2016 seems to have hurled at so many of us and a very satisfying book with which to bring July and August to a close.

A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review and if you’ve missed the first two posts they’re here and here. Nothing much of note for me in September so the fourth and final post for my books of 2016 will leap ahead to cover October and November.

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by 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.