Rating 3 stars
Hiromi Kawakami’s second novel was a change of pace from my previous read this month. Set in a thrift shop that definitely isn’t an antique shop, it follows the lives of shop owner Mr Nakano, his sister Masayo and his two employees Takeo and Hitomi. Hitomi narrates the day to day happenings around the shop.
Like Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, The Nakano Thrift Shop is about relationships. Kawakami observes through her characters how we are often more interested in other people’s relationships than our own, how unobservant we can be about the people who surround us, and how little we often truly know about other people.
Hitomi often fails to see what is right under her nose, puzzling over the things her co-worker Takeo says to her. She observes her boss in detail but doesn’t understand him as a person. To her, Mr Nakano is an enigma, appearing and disappearing throughout the day, reluctant to share personal information about his life. The only person Hitomi really listens to is Masayo, and even then she doesn’t always understand what’s being said to her.
The first thing that Hitomi tells us about Mr Nakano is that he has a verbal tic that puzzles her and Takeo. Mr Nakano starts almost every sentence or conversation with ‘you know what I mean’. It’s a very precise thing to say. I tried to work out what the Japanese phrase might be that Allison Markin Powell has translated as ‘you know what I mean’. I thought of ええと (e– toh) which is more ‘you know’ than the full fat ‘you know what I mean’. I’ve heard Japanese people using ええと in conversation, which suggested to me that Mr Nakano’s shop workers wouldn’t comment on his use of it, no matter how oddly frequently. Google translate gave me ‘私の言っていることが分かるよね’ (watashi no itte iru koto ga wakaru yo ne). This does seem a particularly fancy turn of phrase, so maybe the original Japanese is something along those lines. I didn’t let it puzzle me for long, because the story took an unusual turn.
The book is a series of vignettes and objects lend structure to it. Each chapter takes as its title an object that features in the chapter’s story in a minor way. Sometimes it’s an object sold in the shop, sometimes it’s not, but the object always acts as a lens through which the meaning of the chapter can be viewed differently.
For example, in Rectangular #2, the first chapter of the book, Hitomi encounters a strange customer in the shop, who only appears when she is on her own and disappears as soon as Mr Nakano or Takeo return. One day he presents Hitomi with an envelope of erotic photographs, suggesting mysteriously/creepily that she might learn something from them. Tadokoro turns out to be the former school teacher of Mr Nakano’s sister and has a disgraced past. The chapter title is the size of the envelope that contains the photographs. It’s an envelope that fits the photographs so snugly that it’s a struggle to get the pictures in and out. Sometimes things that seem the perfect size are actually a little restrictive. Sometimes the effort involved in drawing out what’s hidden inside results in more confusion, not less.
Gradually, as each vignette unfolds, a broader picture of life emerges. Hitomi and Takeo circle around each other, Hitomi undecided on whether she wants more from Takeo; Takeo undecided on whether he has more to give. Hitomi develops a fascination for Mr Nakano and his unconventional life, but finds it uncomfortable when he provides unnecessary detail about his extramarital affairs. Takeo has very deep, very still running waters, with Kawakami hinting at something going on in the background with him that Hitomi fails to see the signs of. Mr Nakano talks about his womanising in abstract ways, reluctant to talk about it openly, but still needing to use his sister, Hitomi and Takeo as sounding boards for how he sees his own behaviour. Masayo is the most open character, quick to get to the heart of the matter, insightful in her observations, clever in her gentle manipulation of her sibling and his employees to get them to where they need to be.
It’s a very Japanese book, with strange formality in places that it isn’t really required mixed with incongruous moments of utter frankness. It’s also a book about introversion. For all introverts who find the presence of others a drain on their mental energy, there’s a certain disinterest in other people and a lack of impetus to ask questions or know what questions to ask that don’t seem intrusive and don’t invite excessive intimacy. For reserved introverts, this is layered with a reluctance to share anything personal, superficial or not, with other people. For introverts who are more outgoing, there can be a tendency to overshare the personal as a means of hearing the inner turmoil of self-reflection expressed outside the mind. All four of the people connected by the Nakano Thrift Shop exhibit introvert traits and it makes for interesting reading as a fellow introvert. I appreciated the way conversations tail off because one of the interlocutors doesn’t want to take the interaction any further, and the way this is sometimes expressed by the reluctant person leaving the room. I also appreciated the humour in the awkwardness caused by Mr Nakano’s occasional oversharing of information.
Introversion can be a curse, of course, especially when it comes to making sure your emotional needs are met. Miscommunication leads to misunderstanding and the unwillingness to broach the subject leads to resentment, as in the case of Takeo making a sketch of Hitomi that makes her feel uncomfortable, leading to the two of them stopping speaking to each other. It infects the rest of Hitomi’s life and I felt for her at the end of this passage:
‘You know what I mean?’ Mr Nakano said just as he was about to close the shop. At the height of summer, there had still been daylight up until the moment when the shutter was closed but at some point the sun had started going down sooner than I realized. And once the sun set, the temperature cooled off a bit, unlike the early days of September.
Yes? I replied. It had been a while since I’d heard Mr Nakano use his pet phrase, but today it evoked no mirth in me. Ever since Takeo and I had stopped speaking, I had been impassive to whatever I saw or heard. And I myself found this annoying.
‘Are all women really so damned erotic?’ Mr Nakano asked. As usual, he was abrupt and hard to understand.
Erotic? I asked. I had intended to ignore him, but I had hardly spoken all day, and I felt like making some kind of sound.
All three of the people who officially work in the thrift shop seemed immature to me, unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, unable for all their introversion to acknowledge who they are as people and what they want. Masayo is the only truly adult character. She isn’t central to the story, but exists at the periphery of events in the other characters’ lives, pulled in whenever there is some kind of crisis.
She gives Hitomi sage advice, and as I approach my fiftieth year on the planet, I found her the most relatable character. I was thinking recently about how books deliver different meanings depending on where you are in your life when you read them. A friend reviewed a book that I had enjoyed, saying that she found its pace too slow and its structure too meandering. I read the book a month after my mum died and found comfort in how it was written and what was said. I wonder what my response to it would be now, and what it would have been a decade earlier (if the book had existed ten years ago). In The Nakano Thrift Shop, reading what Masayo says to Hitomi about her attitude towards herself and others changing as she grows older resonated with me. It struck me that I viewed Hitomi in a similar way to Masayo. I wasn’t there with her in her dilemma, but was observing it at a remove. Twenty years ago, when I would have been closer in age to Hitomi, I would have responded differently to the book, I’m sure. Now, I’m with Masayo.
When I was young, I always blamed everyone. When I was in my thirties too. Even into my forties. No matter if it was my fault or someone else’s fault, I still blamed everyone else. Whether it was a lover or just a friend, when trouble arose that’s always how it was. But now that I’m in my fifties, I have found it easier not to accuse others when things happen, be it a difference of opinion, or a misunderstanding, or a quarrel.
Do people become kinder when they turn fifty? I asked, still in a bit of a daze.
‘No, no, that’s not it at all!’ Masayo raised her brows sharply.
Then what do you mean?
‘If anything, the older I get, the more demanding I become!’
‘And kinder towards myself.’ Masao gave a little laugh. She looks pretty when she smiles, I thought to myself.
I think this identifying more with a less central character is why I enjoyed the book but didn’t love it. I understood Hitomi, sympathised with her plight, but also felt drained by her approach to that plight. It’s hard to truly love a book when you find the main character a little wearing.
Hitomi’s persistence in trying to break through to Takeo made me wonder whether belief that you can change how a person feels about you or hang in there for the faintest glimmer of them feeling the same about you is an age thing. Hitomi seems not to want to demand the best for herself. Perhaps when we are younger, it’s the belonging that matters, the feeling that we need someone else to love us, too, not just ourselves. Hitomi is conflicted about this – she equates Takeo’s behaviour towards her as a sign that he’s not interested, but she won’t give up until he has articulated his lack of interest. The problem is that Takeo doesn’t communicate anything.
Takeo moved his head slightly. It was impossible to tell whether it had been a nod or a shake.
Abruptly, I realised that I did love Takeo after all, though I didn’t know why. Despite not having given any thought to such feelings since he stopped answering my calls. I love him, like an idiot. Love is idiotic, anyway.
Takeo still hadn’t said anything. Even petroleum is in limited supply, I thought, to say nothing of the terribly meager resources of my love. How could it be expected to sustain this level of silent treatment?
And when Takeo eventually does say something, it unleashes a wave of feeling within Hitomi that she chooses not to share with him. Instead she walks away from him, thinking about how she can stop loving him. I would have reached into the book and shaken her, had I not understood it on that deeply frustrating level of being an introvert, too. Communication is a nightmare when you’re afraid of showing someone else who you really are. Both Hitomi and Takeo embody this fear.
Immediately after this intense moment, Kawakami moves the book onto less emotional ground, focusing on Mr Nakano’s newest scheme to earn a living. It takes the book down a different avenue, away from the frustrations of Hitomi and Takeo’s is-it-isn’t-it relationship. The final chapter draws the strings together in a way that I found slightly too neat. I would have preferred a more ragged ending that left me guessing a little more about what might happen next. It is an open ending, but it felt like Kawakami dodged the more realistic ending the book deserved.
The episodic nature of the book put me in mind of a Japanese TV show that I like, Shin’ya Shokudō (Midnight Diner), with its central cast in its central location of a side alley ramen shop and the passing customers who bring moments from their lives into the shop owner’s and the regulars’ world. There’s a similar melancholy about The Nakano Thrift Shop that’s rooted in the solitary nature of the characters who seem closely connected but who maintain barriers to disguise the truth of who they are.
It’s a strange and beautiful book, definitely worth reading. I wonder what an extravert would make of it.