Friday, March 20, 2020

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I’m not even sure exactly how this one got on my list. But I guess that is what happens when you have something like 300 books on your list that have accumulated over the course of nearly ten years from a variety of sources.

Kitchen is the first novel by Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto (pen name for Mahoko Yoshimoto), written in 1988. It is a fairly short novella, delightfully compact, and achingly bittersweet. Paired with this, in the English translation from 1993, is Yoshimoto’s debut short story, “Moonlight Shadow,” which is also lovely. 

Both the novel and the short story are about grief, loss, and love. In each case, the narrator, a young woman starting out in the world, loses a person close to her, and then must navigate both the trauma of the loss and complicated feelings of love. 

In Kitchen, Mikage Sakurai already lost both parents when she was very young. She was raised by her grandmother, who dies early in the story. She is essentially taken in by a friend and his mother. Except that this is no ordinary family. Yuichi Tanabe is a pretty normal young man, but his situation is unusual. His mother died of cancer a number of years back. After that, his father came to terms with his gender identity, and now lives as a woman. (Sorry about the pronouns, I couldn’t make it make sense otherwise.) So, as Yuichi says, “I’d never lived with anyone but Eriko, she was my mother, my father. Because she was always just Eriko.” 

Eriko is a kind person, with a sense of humor, and takes in Mikage as part of the family. Eventually, Mikage gets a job as a chef (hence the name), and moves out. It is devastating when she learns that Eriko has been murdered by someone who resents his attraction to a transgender woman. 

Both Mikage and Yuichi are devastated, but unsure how to grieve, how to process things. And, to top it off, they are in love with each other, but can’t even admit it to themselves. 

The high point of the novel is a midnight delivery of katsudon as a declaration of love. It’s a fantastic scene, deliciously written. 

The book is so self-contained, so delicately written, it’s a polished gem. It feels very Japanese to me, although I’m probably not much of an expert on that. The emotions are handled with care, with perception, and with grace. It really is a lovely read. 

I want to mention a couple more lines. After Eriko’s death, Mikage comes over to Yuichi’s house, and sends him out with a shopping list so she can cook for him. (That’s both her coping mechanism and part of her bond with Eriko.) 

I heard the door close, and when I was alone I realized I was dead tired. The room was so unearthly quiet, I lost all sense of time being divided into seconds. I felt that I was the only person alive and moving in a world brought to a stop. 
Houses always feel like that after someone has died. 

 And then this one, a reflection by Mikage about her co-workers and their lives. 

Those women lived their lives happily. They had been taught, probably by caring parents, not to exceed the boundaries of their happiness regardless of what they were doing. But therefore they could never know real joy. Which is better? Who can say? Everyone lives the way she knows best. What I mean by “their happiness” is living a life untouched as much as possible by the knowledge that we are really, all of us, alone. That’s not a bad thing. Dressed in their aprons, their smiling faces like flowers, learning to cook, absorbed in their little troubles and perplexities, they fall in love and marry. I think that’s great. I wouldn’t mind that kind of life. Me, when I’m utterly exhausted by it all, when my skin breaks out, on those lonely evenings when I call my friends again and again and nobody’s home, then I despise my own life -- my birth, my upbringing, everything. I feel only regret for the whole thing. 

The catharsis of the ending feels so gratifying because of these earlier moments of raw grief and existential despair. 

“Moonlight Shadow” is a bit different, although it starts with a loss. Satsuki is reeling from the death of her long-time boyfriend. He died in a car crash along with his brother’s girlfriend. (Nothing scandalous about it - he was just giving her a ride.) Satsuki and the brother, Hiiragi, deal with their grief in different ways. Hiiragi wears his girlfriend’s school uniform everywhere. Satsuki takes up running (and probably anorexia as well.) Things change when Satsuki meets a mysterious woman, Urara, at the bridge where she and her boyfriend used to meet. Urara brings her to the bridge again at a certain time where they see a mystical phenomenon, and Urara, Hiiragi, and Satsuki are able to say goodbye to their beloveds. It isn’t as deep (or nearly as long) as Kitchen, but it shares the polished, bittersweet loveliness. It is possible, perhaps, to see “Moonlight Shadow” as a first draft of the themes which Kitchen would explore in more detail. 

I very much enjoyed this book, and can definitely recommend it as worth the time. Only a handful of Banana Yoshimoto’s books have been translated into English, but I may have to seek them out. 

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