• Friday, May 28th, 2021

Hiromi Kawakami was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1958. She is a 1980 biology graduate 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. After her marriage in 1986 and her husband’s work involving living in another region of Japan, she stopped working and became a housewife and a mother. She divorced in 2009.

The Nakano Thrift Shop was published in Japanese in 2005 and English in 2016. It 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 an unconventional novelist, Haiku poet, literary critic and provocative essayist. She is one of the most acclaimed writers in Japan.

The story of The Nakano Thrift Shop revolves around four characters. Young Hitomi, the protagonist and narrator, works as a cashier in Mr Nakano’s thrift shop; the married, middle-aged Mr Nakano, the shop owner, is a mysterious person and a womanizer with various former wives. Takeo, his delivery driver, is an unemotional shy young man, disinterested in sex and to whom the passive Hitomi seems to be attracted. The fourth character is Nakano’s eldest sister, the fifty-year-old artist, Masayo, who is secretive about her regrets and heartaches. She is accommodating, has never married and volunteers to teach Hitomi a few rudiments about love and attraction.

In different ways, each character is peculiar, introverted, eccentric and with no motivation for adjustment. Hitomi has changing moods, and her thoughts evolve around Takeo and his disinterest in love and romance. Both of them seem awkward and insecure. Hitomi is uncertain about whether she loves Takeo or dislikes him. As for Takeo, his sentiments appear to be lukewarm towards her, an emotional uncertainty that is not uncommon in Kawakami’s novels.

Nothing much happens in the everyday life of the four characters – just a quiet, mundane perpetuum mobile, similar to Kawakami’s previous novel, The Briefcase, published in English in 2012, which we discussed in our Book Club in 2018. Both novels are slow-paced with no magical realism, plot, or twists, just an account of the quiet life of ordinary people. It is akin to Yasujiro Ozu’s films which have a certain charm. A line that is not uncommon with some Japanese authors and film-makers.

The novel is divided into 12 chapters. Each chapter is linked to the previous one and yet is self-contained, like an episode in a series. The chapters are titled according to items sold in the shop: Paper Weight, Letter Opener, Sewing Machine and other several bric-a-brac.

In The Nakano Thrift shop, the author concentrates more on describing the shop’s daily occurrences rather than developing her ambiguous characters, which are revealed to the reader in segments and without depth. The novel is left open-ended, giving the reader a choice for the denouement. The story provides salient insight into a Japanese shopkeeper’s daily life and the life of his workers and clients.

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Category: Book Reviews
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