Review: Strangers

If someone asked me I would say I absolutely love Japanese literature, and Banana Yoshimoto’s N.P. was such a reading experience, that I never noticed that I don’t actually read many Japanese novels! Which says a lot about Yoshimoto’s works (I’ve read and loved them all, though I haven’t read her newest work yet) but was an embarrassing realization for me. Still, I signed up for Bellezza’s fifth Japanese Literature Challenge, which is a wonderful opportunity to read more works by Japanese authors and get lots of recommendations from others.

Do you have certain books you pick up many times but ultimately put back on the shelf again? I do that a lot, somehow I’m always drawn to the same covers but am unsure about the plot or style. On my last visit to the library, I finally looted Strangers by Taichi Yamada.

Strangers is about Hideo Harada, a tv script-writer in his late forties. Since the divorce from his wife he has moved into his office, a place which is both loud from nearby traffic and eerily quiet as everyone else leaves in the evening. One night however, he notices that one other window is lit and shortly after meets its occupant, a beautiful young woman with whom he starts an affair. One day he decides to visit his childhood home in Asakusa, where he meets a couple who look exactly like his parents who died in a motorcycle crash when Hideo was twelve. Although he tries to convince himself that he is suffering from hallucinations, he cannot resist parental care and love and keeps visiting his parents who now look younger than he is himself. However, with each visit he appears closer and closer to death himself as his gaunt and gray looks begin to scare the people around him.

Yamada’s novel is an eerie, wonderfully atmospheric ghost story told in sparse prose. Is this elegant sparse prose typical for Japanese literature? It seems to be from my limited experience. I’m tempted to compare the prose style to the Japanese cuisine but perhaps labeling it sparse would incur the wrath of those who know better? 😉 While I’m drawn to the explosion of aroma that is Indian cooking, I love the opposite when it comes to prose style.

Strangers plays with reality and illusion and like Hideo you can never be quite sure which is which. Yamada has set his ghost story in an urban environment, and despite or because of the huge population of Tokyo, his characters are desperately lonely people. I’d love to say more about Hideo’s relationship with the dead which is so very different from that with the real people in his life, but I’m afraid to spoil things for those who haven’t read the novel. I don’t think the ending will come as a complete surprise, and despite the shortness of this book I felt it dragged a bit in the middle, but the mood was always atmospheric and made me read on. I wonder if this is perhaps an early novel? Although I really enjoyed Strangers and will recommend it to others, I do think that there was more potential to the story and Yamada can do better. I’ll have to check what else has been translated of his works, any recommendations?

Other thoughts:

Dolce Bellezza

Things Mean A Lot

The Parrish Lantern

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

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20 thoughts on “Review: Strangers

  1. I think next year I seriously need to consider reading more books from around the world, you and Jov, have always got such an exotic mix going on! When I look at what I’ve read and reviewed there is mainly english, american, and maybe a few european books. Most were wrote in english very few are translations. Not sure if this is definitely the book for me but will definitely be making a note of the author.

    1. Jo is awesome like that, but I hardly read any non-US or British lit, I’ll have to work at that as well.I’d recommend starting with Banana Yoshimoto if you want to read some Japanese lit 🙂

      1. Thanks so much for the mention! 🙂 When I saw this appear on your blog Bina I have a split second of a Twilight Zone moment and wonder if I’m reading the right blog and a Japanese Literature review in it! a big WOW from me Bina, because I haven’t read this one and I’m so happy you did! yes Banana Yoshimoto is a good place to start and I’m wondering when “The Lake” is available in the Uk! 😦

        1. I do love Yoshimoto’s works, have to get The Lake soon, and enjoyed Ogawa and some Murakami, so I think I probably like Japanese fiction 🙂 Hope you get to read this one, so eerie!

  2. I loved how you said eerie and atmospheric, and in many ways it reminds me of what other Japanese author’s do so often (and well): they write of something mysical, almost, and at the end we’re left to interpret it as we will. I don’t think there’s a cut and dried explanation for many of the Japanese novels I’ve read, and the American part of me which is used to everything laid out perfectly, often is left curious. But, I’m always left thinking it all over for weeks and months.

    You siad, “Strangers plays with reality and illusion and like Hideo you can never be quite sure which is which”…that’s exactly how I felt.

    Luckily your library had it for you! I had to order my own copy from Amazon.com

    1. I love when books stay with you for a while. But I often have that with US lit as well 🙂 That’s so weird that my library even had the English translation but you had to order, how do librarians choose acquisitions?

      And thanks for hosting the challenge, it would’ve taken me ages to read this one otherwise!

  3. This is one of those rare causes in which the ending of a book sort of ruined it for me. I loved the first 90% of it, and I completely agree with you about the wonderful atmosphere, but I just didn’t like how things turned out. Oh well, can’t love them all.

    1. Oh I hate when that happens, especially when books start out so great. I didn’t hate the ending, but I wish it would’ve been more of a twist and the revenge aspect was unnecessary.

  4. I liked Strangers a lot. I saw the primary theme as the power the dead have over the living. I was not real convinced by the romance part of the book-it almost seemed added on just to increase sales-it was also interesting to learn about the business side of TV in Japan-I enjoyed reliving the book through your post on it.

    1. I think the romance just reinforced how his most intimate relationships are with the dead. The tv business was interesting and I loved his view on the solitude of writing.

  5. Hey Bina, sorry for the long absence! Loved this review! Japanese novels are always so full of metaphors and hidden layers. They make you think. This seems no exception. I haven’t read that many Japanese novels, perhaps I should… 🙂

  6. This sounds great! I don’t think I’ve ever read a Japanese novel but I *have* read many excellent reviews! 😉 I love how creepy the Japanese fiction all seem to sound. This one seems to have been slightly inspired by Oscar Wilde? 🙂

  7. Wonderful review, Bina! I haven’t read much of Japanese literature, except for my favourite Yoko Ogawa and Natsuo Kirino. I really should read more. I want to explore Banana Yoshimoto, Murakami and Taichi Yamada. ‘Strangers’ looks like a wonderful book from your review. I love that cover too – it evokes the spirit of the book. I will add this to my ‘TBR’ list. Thanks for this wonderful review!

    1. I have yet to read any Kirino, but they sound wonderfully creepy. Which one did you read? My library has a few.
      Please read some Yoshimoto! Kitchen or N.P.! 🙂

  8. I really enjoyed this book, so much that I track down the others in English & read those & that was one of my introductions to J-Lit, don’t know if you’ve come across them – I Haven’t Dream of Flying for a While & In Search of a Distant Voice and if your interested here’s the website
    http://www.yamadataichi.com/

    Thanks for the link.
    Parrish.

    1. Happy to hear you loved Strangers, and thanks for the recommendations! I will search my library catalogue and see of they these two works! 🙂

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