In Kitchen, published almost twenty years ago, Banana Yoshimoto collected two short works about life and death in modern Japan. She has since become internationally known with eight books of close observation about grief and the hesitant spirituality of young people.
In the first of these two tales, “Hardboiled,” a woman finds herself walking alone through the mountains. She passes a roadside shrine containing black stones possessed of malignant spirits. It then occurs to the woman that this is the anniversary of the death of her lover, whom the narrator had lived with for a time when she was poor and lonely. She left the woman and the woman died shortly thereafter in a freak house fire. If the narrator had remained with her lover, she would have died as well. After finding the shrine with black stones, the narrator arrives in a village and attempts to eat a bowl of inedible noodles. She discovers that one of the black stones has followed her to the noodle shop. When the narrator finally finds lodging for the night, in an empty hotel, she hears that the noodle shop has burned to the ground. The sequence becomes even more menacing when the ghost of a woman killed in a suicide pact accosts the narrator. The dead woman and her married lover had agreed to kill themselves. They had taken sleeping pills. The dead woman had taken the greater share, thereby killing herself and saving her lover. The narrator spends the night with hotelkeeper in her cramped quarters. In the morning after all of this trouble, the dead lover and the narrator find a degree of comfort. In this story the dead remain insistent among the living.
The second story, too, concerns the existence of the dead among the living. In “Hard Luck,” a much-loved sister is brain dead, and the family gathers at the hospital as they prepare to sever the life support. She was engaged to a man unfamiliar to the family. Rather than deal directly with the death of his fiancée, the man has run off. In his place, his odd brother turns up. The narrator finds the brother appealing. He has long hair and runs his own tai chi school, an unusual profession that places him slightly outside of the mainstream. The sister clearly has a future while the sister remains in the past. It is the sister’s death that makes this future possible. The family comes to terms with the death and, less easily, they come to terms with the future.
Yoshimoto uses carefully paced sentences that yield to the occasional image and narrative digression. At first her style seems painfully literal and simple. And yet as the narrative unfolds the sparse language seems calculated rather than thrifty. Because so much is unsaid, what is said implies more than it would with an extravagant narrator. As the stories unfold, the gaps in the sense of what seems plain and easily understood opens a space as rich as the perceived and subliminal world.
Reviewed by Matt Briggs