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!