Rating 5 stars
Kitchen is the first novel by Banana Yoshimoto. She’s written a few more since then, but so far I’ve only read The Lake. I enjoyed that one well enough, but I enjoyed Kitchen a whole lot more.
The edition I borrowed from the library has the kanji for kitchen (daidokoro in Japanese) on the cover. The kanji suggest that a kitchen is a place for machines, but Yoshimoto’s book proves that they are places for people.
The narrator is a student who moves in with a fellow student and his mother after her grandmother dies. Mikage was raised by her grandmother, caring for her as she grew older, and the loss of this woman knocks her for a while.
The first half of the novel, also called Kitchen, explores the impact of grief, its quiet sadness, its surreal way of pausing life, its numbness and its frozen distraction. When her fellow student, Yuichi, invites her to stay with him, Mikage bases her decision on how the kitchen makes her feel. She believes that the kitchen of a house tells a lot about the people who live there. Mikage likes the kitchen in Yuichi’s apartment and agrees to move in.
Yuichi and his mother act as though they have rescued Mikage, like a stray puppy they have found. They offer her a home, put on hold her need to move on with her life until she is fully ready to take her next step. They don’t treat her as though she is fragile. They don’t tiptoe around her. They don’t smother her with attention. They are simply kind to her, welcoming her into their home and expecting nothing from her.
Yuichi’s mother was originally his father. His birth mother died and his father realised that he wasn’t living life as the person he believed himself to be. He changed gender. Yuji became Eriko. Eriko owns a nightclub where she works every night, coming home in the early hours. She and Mikage talk in the kitchen, where Mikage cooks for Eriko.
The novel is a love story built around food and its power to show how we care about one another. I know people for whom baking and cooking for others is their best way of showing love. Mikage, appalled at the way Yuichi and his mother eat, begins cooking simple meals for them, as a way to show her gratitude for them providing her with a comfortable space in which to navigate the solitude of grief.
Even though she knows she has, Mikage is reluctant to give up the apartment she shared with her grandmother. She keeps it on for as long as possible. Although she’s sleeping on the sofa at Yuichi’s apartment, most of her worldly possessions are still at the old apartment. Eventually, she realises that this state of affairs can’t go on forever, and she goes to clear the old apartment.
Until only recently, the light that bathed the now-empty apartment had contained the smells of our life there.
The kitchen window. The smiling faces of friends, the fresh greenery of the university campus as a backdrop to Sotaro’s profile, my grandmother’s voice on the phone when I called her late at night, my warm bed on cold mornings, the sound of my grandmother’s slippers in the hallway, the colour of the curtains … the tatami mat … the clock on the wall.
All of it. Everything that was no longer there.
This is a small paragraph but, for me, it captures what loss is like. All of the things that make a place a home, all of the things that amount to our personal history, that have helped form us into who we are, all of the things that don’t matter at the time but matter intensely once they are gone.
Mikage rides the bus back to Yuichi’s apartment and overhears a grandmother talking to her granddaughter. Mikage realises that she will never see her grandmother again, and the words Never Again overpower her with their weight, and in her grief cause tears to flow. Never Again is the hardest part of grief. It never goes away. It fades, is drowned out by the rest of life thrusting on despite it, but every so often Never Again will rise to the top of feeling and grief is there again.
Very little actually happens in the story, and at the same time everything happens. We learn so much about these three characters and the way they are accepting of others, caring without imposing. Mikage seems happy to have found them and not even her former boyfriend criticising her new living arrangements can put a dampener on things. She has found the friends she needs just at the moment she needed them.
The second half of the novel, called Full Moon, starts with sadness. An unexpected death, a life ended suddenly, throws Mikage into crisis. Some people come into our lives and are almost instantly special. We might not see them often, but the knowledge that they are in the world and not far away if we need them is a comfort. Mikage loses just such a person, and quite soon after the loss of her grandmother. Her crisis makes her want to end her life.
She talks to Yuichi and gains a different perspective. She recalls how loss has changed her, and it is the way loss changes all of us, whether we admit it or not.
To the extent that I had come to understand that despair does not necessarily result in annihilation, that one can go on as usual in spite of it, I had become hardened. Was that what it meant to be an adult, to live with ugly ambiguities? I didn’t like it, but it made it easier to go on.
Both she and Yuichi are grieving in different ways, and both choose to run away from the things that cause painful memories. When we meet Mikage in this half of the book, she has left college and become a trainee chef. Her job provides the perfect opportunity to get away from Tokyo, with a gastronomic trip to Izu.
While she’s away, Mikage realises what it is that she wants, and understands that grief means she has to put things on hold. For someone so young, she shows a great deal of insight into what grief is.
Yuichi’s grief, as seen through Mikage’s eyes, reveals the subtle differences between how men and women grieve. There is a moment when Yuichi explains why he has been hiding away from Mikage instead of taking comfort in her friendship by telling her that he wanted to wait until he was more manly and feeling strong. Such strange creatures, men, with their reluctance to acknowledge what they think of as weakness.
Only 105 pages long, Kitchen is a work of art. I gained a lot from it in relation to the griefs I carry around with me.
Also included in this edition of Kitchen is a novella called Moonlight Shadow. It’s another exploration of grief experienced at a young age. The narrator loses her first love at the age of twenty and buries her grief in the mistaken thinking that is Keeping Busy.
There was only one thing I had any desire to do: I wanted to see Hitoshi. Yet at all costs I had to keep my hands and body and mind moving. Doing that, I hoped, albeit listlessly, would somehow, someday, lead to a breakthrough. There was no guarantee, but I would try to endure, no matter what, until it came. When my dog died, when my bird died, I had gotten through in more or less the same way. But it was different this time. Without a prospect in sight, day after day went by, like losing one’s mind bit by bit. I would repeat to myself, like a prayer: It’s alright, it’s alright, the day will come when you’ll pull out of this.
Keeping Busy doesn’t work. Grief is messy, inconvenient, paralysing and necessary. Why don’t we get that?
The narrator encounters a strange woman on the bridge where she last saw her love. A series of spooky coincidences involving this woman leads to a beautiful moment in the narrator’s grief. Alongside is the steady friendship that builds between her and her boyfriend’s younger brother, who is also grieving. It’s a strange but beautiful story. It left me feeling more melancholy than Kitchen did, though.
I’m so pleased that I read this tiny book.