Review: The Nakano Thrift Shop – Hiromi Kawakami

9781846276002

The Nakano Thrift Store – Hiromi Kawakami (Translated by Allison Markin Powell)
Release Date: 04/08/2016
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 260pp RRP: £12.99 (Paperback)
Kindle version available here (£8.54)

The use of a thrift store as the backdrop for a look at the eccentricity of love and relationships is certainly not something you’d usually expect. Hiromi Kawakami uses this setting to craft a light read with a surprising amount of depth, and infuses it with a sense of charm that stays with the reader long after finishing the book.

Kawakami’s latest translated work follows Hitomi Suganuma, a young Japanese woman who gets a job at a second-hand (or thrift) store run by the curious Haruo Nakano. It’s here that Hitomi is drawn to Takeo, the delivery driver for the store. As the novel unfolds and their relationship develops, Takeo is revealed to be an insular young man with seemingly unresolved issues – the question then becomes whether or not the naive and inexperienced Hitomi possesses the patience to help him resolve these issues. Whilst it would be easy to draw parallels with Kawakami’s last major translated book, Strange Weather in Tokyo (also published under the title, The Briefcase) – a young woman adrift in life and drawn to a man who cannot guarantee the affection she seeks – that would do her work here a disservice. The structure she’s used can be seen to make the chapters act almost like self-contained stories, each one focusing on a particular object for sale in the store. This allows the reader to approach the book at a leisurely pace, and at times almost makes it feel like you’re reading a short story collection.

The nature of the relationships in the books are explored largely via the conversations between the employees of the shop – with the ‘target object’ of the chapter usually providing the starting point or catalyst. Sex is a frequent discussion topic – one key example being when a customer brings in a set of photos to sell, which turn out to be of one of his former lovers. Nakano himself doesn’t hold back from discussing his sexual interests with his employees, nor does his older (and at times, wonderfully blunt) sister, Masayo, who occasionally strays from keeping an eye on her younger brother’s interests to detail her relationship with the distant Mr Maruyama. The relatively inexperienced Hitomi finds something of a mentor in Masayo, even when the guidance she provides demonstrates that foolish behaviour isn’t entirely limited to the younger generation. All of this is handled with a delicate touch by Kawakami, without undercutting the severity of the points she’s making. It’s also important to note that through the behaviour of her characters (Takeo in particular), and their occasionally odd approaches to conversation, Kawakami ends up implying just as much through what’s left unsaid as what’s written on the page.

Whilst you may get more out of this novel if you have some knowledge of the nuances of contemporary Japanese society, Kawakami has crafted something both highly enjoyable and surprisingly accessible. Significant praise should be given to Allison Markin Powell’s excellent work in translating the book. There’s not much of Kawakami’s work that has been translated into English as of yet, but I’m keen to see more, and I hope Powell’s involvement in that effort continues.

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