Hiromi Kawakami is one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists but only a few of her works have been translated into English. She is known for “offbeat” fiction and in some ways her latest novel, set in a small ‘thrift shop’ in Tokyo, fits that bill. But it is also beautifully observed and the characters, while odd, feel real.
Mr Nakano, the ageing shop owner surrounds himself with what can only be described as bric-a-brac – old ashtrays, bowls, paperweights – and has a growing on-line auction businesses. The Nakano Thrift Shop has a strong ongoing narrative (although one that takes a while to get going) but is told as a series of tales, often based around an item in the shop or one of the odd range of customers who frequent the store. The narrator of these tales is Hitomi, a young woman who works in the shop and finds herself becoming besotted by her fellow worker Takeo. Takeo is a taciturn character and the two develop a fairly chaste on again off again relationship. In the meantime, Mr Nakano is having one, and possibly more, affairs and his sister Masayo, who also spends time in the shop and provides relationship advice to Hitomi, is starting a relationship with an old flame, Mr Maruyama.
he word quirky could be used to describe The Nakano Thrift Shop and its characters but actually it is better to think of it as uniquely Japanese. The shop itself, filled with objects one step away from being junk, is like a world out of time and the activities and conversations that take place there are often eccentric but also true and often deep. Many of the tales revolve around love, sex and relationships. One involves some nude photos, another is about an erotic manuscript, one involves a customer trying to work out what to do with an expensive present from an ex-lover. These stories are all filtered through Hitomi’s oblique view of the world and help her make sense of her own life and the lives of others.
Alison Markin Powell’s translation seems to capture the essence of Kawakami’s style, so that even through the lens of translation, reading The Nakano Thrift Shop feels like a trip to Japan. But while Kawakami subtly captures the spirit of modern, urban Japan and its people she also tells stories and deals with issues that are ultimately universal.