• Friday, June 15th, 2018

Hiromi Kawakami was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1958. She is a 1980 graduate of Biology from Ochanomizu Women’s University in Tokyo, where her degree thesis was on “reproduction in sea urchins”. In 1982, Kawakami worked for four years as a biology teacher at Denenchoolori High School. She stopped working in 1986, became a housewife after her marriage and childbirth and because of her husband’s work involving living in another region of Japan. She divorced in 2009.

In 1994 she won the Pascal Short Story Prize for New Writers for her first book, Kamisama, God.
She became well known in 1996 for her book Hebi Wo Fumu, Record Of A Night, which won the Akutagawa Prize that year.

The Briefcase, Sensei no Kaban, published in Japanese in 2001 and English in 2012, won the Junichiro Tanizaki Prize, one of Japan’s much sought-after literary awards. It was a best-seller, translated into several languages and was adapted for television. Kawakami is known as a haiku poet, a literary critic and a provocative essayist. She is one of the most acclaimed writers in Japan.

The narrator of The Briefcase, Tsukiko, is a solitary thirty-seven-year-old liberated woman who likes to eat and drink sake and beer at her local bar. She is an office worker and lives alone in an apartment in Tokyo. One night she goes to her usual local bar and sits at the counter next to a man who stares at her, a conversation ensues.

She discovers that the man sitting next to her is Mr Harutsuna Matsumoto, her former high school teacher, but now a retired widower in his seventies. In her school days, she used to address him as Sensei (teacher) and will continue to call him Sensei throughout the story.

With random ones to follow, this fortuitous meeting will lead to an unusual relationship which develops calmly and unobtrusively into an attachment that grows stronger with time to become deep affection. Tsukiko and Sensei drink and eat in the same place, alone or together. They go shopping on Saturdays, go wild mushroom foraging in the mountains with their local barman and his brother, on a Sunday. They even spend a weekend in each other’s company in a spa. They nevertheless respect their mutual privacy and freedom.

Whenever and whatever place he goes to, morning or evening, Sensei always carries his inseparable briefcase. Hence the title of the novel and the last chapter heading.

The Briefcase evokes several themes: loneliness, subtle romance and tasty seasonal food. It also underlines the beauty of nature in every season. Like the picnics in the spring to admire the spectacular show of cherry blossom (Sakura), the weekend excursion to an island in a small guest house with a scenic view over the sea in the summer. The mushroom picking in the woods including the spectacular starry nights in the autumn. Moreover, the enjoyment of a warm sake in the harshly cold winter. The array of dishes described represent a gourmet reference to Japanese seasonal, tasty food, loved and appreciated by the two protagonists.

The Briefcase is a bitter-sweet story written with a good deal of sensitivity and interspersed with some Japanese haïku (unrhymed Japanese poems). The novel is charming as well as compelling in its simplicity, its straightforwardness with no chain of events nor suspense, like a Japanese print whose beauty relies on its purified, minimal art style. The author focuses on the relationship between the two solitary, unsuited people, Tsukiko and Sensei. They are different from each other in every aspect but succeed gradually to discover one another. Their feelings evolve slowly at the same rhythm as the changing seasons to become a selfless love-relationship that surpasses the age gap and conventional traditions.

At the end of the novel, we unexpectedly discover that the whole story has been a flashback, a sweet melancholic reminiscence by Tsukiko about her short time with Sensei before he died. His desolate absence, leaving her disconsolate with his empty briefcase – which used to be an essential part of him – lying next to her dressing table. It is a moving ending to a refined, poetic novel.

• Saturday, May 26th, 2018

Lindsay Jayne Ashford was born and raised in Wolverhampton, England in 1959. She is the first woman to graduate from Queens College Cambridge with a masters degree in criminology. Ashford worked as a reporter for the BBC before becoming a freelance journalist writing in several newspapers and magazines. She took a crime-writing course in 1996 organised by Arvon Foundation.

Ashford has written several books, The Woman On The Orient Express, published in 2016, is her latest. Presently she lives between the village of Chawton in Hampshire and on the Welsh coast near Aberystwyth.

The story of The Woman On The Orient Express is set in 1928. Agatha Christie, who is approaching her forties, is a famous novelist of murder mysteries, thrillers, crime fiction and detective stories. She is feeling forsaken and dispirited and in need of a holiday after her eventful, painful divorce from her deceitful husband, Archibald Christie.

Agatha meets a military man at a dinner party in Mayfair, London, who was stationed in Iraq. Conversing with him about news in the papers concerning the discoveries made at Ur in Mesopotamia by Leonard Woolley, she is actively encouraged by this man to visit the archaeological dig in progress in Iraq. Agatha, who has always been attracted to archaeology, decides to travel by the Orient Express train to the Middle East.

Her plan is to travel somewhere faraway where she is unknown and live for a while in seclusion to escape London society gossip as well as to avoid her husband’s upcoming wedding to Nancy Neele, the young woman Archibald Christie abandoned her for after thirteen years of marriage. In 1928 Agatha secretly boards the Orient Express train travelling in disguise under her lesser-known maiden name, Mary Miller.

In her double berth compartment on the sleeper train, Agatha makes acquaintance with the self-confident, attractive blond widow, Katharine Keeling, a commercial artist who makes drawings of the archaeological finds and who is returning to her work at the dig in Ur, the ancient city-state in Mesopotamia. Soon after her arrival, Katharine is to marry Leonard Woolley, the eminent archaeologist in charge of the dig.

The second lady Agatha becomes friends with on the train is the unhappily newly-married, young, good-looking, delicate, Nancy Nelson. Nancy is escaping from her unfaithful husband and is hoping to be joined by her lover in Baghdad to plan their future life together. Each one of the three ladies is hoping to turn the page and start a new life and each of them has a hidden secret.

The concealed secrets are gradually revealed as the story unfolds, due to the characters feeling an affinity and loyalty for each other owing to their shared sufferings. Nevertheless, their secrets are not disclosed to outsiders and are kept among themselves.

In her story Ashford touches upon marriages, divorces, infidelity and deceptions that her three female characters experience. The bitterness and deceitfulness in married life are referred to by the main character: “Marriage is always a leap into the unknown, even if you think you know the other person inside out. It works for some people. But I doubt there are many truly happy marriages”. “The trouble is people always think it must be your fault when men have had enough of you. That you didn’t try hard enough”.

Agatha took the Orient Express train which inspired her to write her famous detective novel: “Murder On The Orient Express” and later “Murder in Mesopotamia”, which sequentially inspired Ashford’s novel title: The Woman On The Orient Express, the woman being Agatha Christie herself.
A very compelling story interlacing historical facts with fiction. The intriguing, suspenseful happenings are written in the Agatha Christie style, having her as the narrative of the chain of events. The protagonist claims at times that she is unable to solve the mysteries she encounters. She asserts not to be as intelligent or resourceful as her famous fictional Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot: “How is it, she thought, that one can create a character who is more intelligent, more observant, more perceptive than oneself?”.

The author noticeably researched all the historical details about Agatha Christie’s life as well as her very mediatised divorce. An enjoyable read with an original, plausible storyline with well depicted mysterious characters and very colourful descriptions about life among middle eastern people.