Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

Opening the pages of Hiromi Kawakami's The Nakano Thrift Shop is like taking a cup of hot tea on a cold, damp day.  It's comforting, uplifting, and fortifying with just a touch of sweetness.  The novel takes place over a few years in the life of a Japanese trinket shop, the items that come in and out of it, and the quirky and lovable people who visit it.  It is the intermingling of the characters, trinkets, and plots that makes this book an absolute delight to read.

Twenty-five years before the story begins, Haruo Nakano quit his corporate job at a food company and decided to open a thrift shop in a Tokyo suburb.  He's an eccentric man, having a penchant for knitted hats with pom-poms on the top, being a chain-smoker who doesn't like to use ashtrays, and having a habit of starting most of his statements with "You know what I mean?", without giving his listener any context or background information.  He's also quite a womanizer - married three times, and regularly keeping mistresses over the course of the novel. 

His store is chock-full of second-hand goods, from cups and bowls to clothing, appliances to furniture, there was very little rhyme or reason to what one might find.  The stock is constantly rotating, being purchased by the neighborhood's colorful residents and nearby college students.  Mr. Nakano goes on regular "pickups", where he drives to clients' homes to examine the keepsakes, trinkets, and castoffs that they want to sell him.  This routine means that the stock in the shop is always changing, which keeps customers coming back.

There are three main people who work either full or part-time in the thrift shop.  The first is Mr. Nakano's older sister, Masayo.  She is an artist, not married, and in her mid-fifties.  She's always working on projects like embroidering, making dolls, and printing on fabrics.  Her work is regularly featured in local art shows.  Mr. Nakano sees her as flamboyant and silly, and complains about her having a quintessential artistic temperament.  He has no qualms about expressing his opinions of her art, her romantic partners, and her life choices.  Masayo keeps no set schedule, but comes in and out of the shop generally as she pleases.  She has great rapport with the customers, and many of them come in just to see her.  Besides being a foil for Mr. Nakano, Masayo also functions as a mentor to another thrift shop employee - Hiromi Suganuma.

Hiromi is in her mid-20's, single, and spends most of her time running the shop's cash register, reading books, and closing up at the end of the day.  She loves to eat pie from the neighborhood bakery, and often shares baked goods with Masayo during their tête-à-têtes.  The third employee at the Nakano Thrift Shop is the slightly odd and very reserved Takeo Kiryu.  Also in his mid-20's, with floppy hair and the end of one of his fingers missing, Takeo was hired to help Mr. Nakano go out on his pickups.  After proving his capacity to make shrewd deals with clients, he is gradually sent out more and more on solo trips.  Both Hiromi and Takeo are quiet, socially awkward, and lonely.  The form a tenuous friendship, and it's the potential blossoming of that friendship into love that makes up the only significant plot-line that extends throughout the entire novel.

As for the organization of the book, The Nakano Thrift Shop is made up of vignettes rather than traditional chapters.  Each covers a few days or weeks, and spends that time in the day-to-day lives of the characters.  Each chapter is titled after an everyday object; that object is introduced into the story as the vignette progresses, and plays a role in the plot.  While reading the book, I played a game with myself -  I noted what object was the title of the vignette and tried to guess how it would appear within the story.  How many did I get it right?  None.  The plotting is so imaginative and well-constructed that I was always surprised with how she integrated the item into the story.

For example, the seventh chapter is titled "Sewing Machine".  I guessed that the sewing machine would be something used by Masayo in one of her art projects, and kept reading to find out if I was correct or not.  The chapter begins with Mr. Nakano and a business associate developing an online auction site for some of the thrift shop's items.  They're talking specifically about an piece that Takeo is bringing to the shop, from a pickup that day.  Takeo walks in with what turns out to be a life-sized, full-body, stand-up cardboard photo of a Japanese actress and singer.  This unusual item was from a 1980's advertising campaign for a sewing machine company.  In the photo, she's holding a sewing machine in one hand, and pointing to her chest with the other hand.  It is decided that this advertisement will go up for auction on the store's site, but will be displayed in the thrift shop until the bidding is concluded.  Hiromi and Takeo continue their flirtation, begun in the first chapter, until Hiromi initiates a fight between them.  Because she finds Takeo hard to make sense of, Hiromi fluctuates between infatuation and the desire to distance herself from him entirely.  After he brings in the advertisement, he seems to ignore her completely, which she interprets as him wanting nothing to do with her.  She tells him that she wants him to leave her alone, which hurts his feelings deeply, and leads to the argument.  Near the end of the chapter, a customer comes in with a large white case, hoping that the thrift store will to make her an offer for it.  It tuns out that inside the case is a sewing machine - identical to the one in the advertisement.  Mr. Nakano decides to buy it, and creates a special display with the two items sitting next to each other.  He remarks that the photo advertisement must not be exactly life-sized, because in-person the sewing machine is larger than it appears in the advertisement.  This distortion between what is perceived and what is real is symbolic of the relationship between Takeo and Hiromi at that point in the novel.  What Hiromi perceives of Takeo may not be quite accurate of his reality, and she makes a mistake that has long-lasting repercussions for both of them.  As you can see, I was wholly wrong with my guess of how the sewing machine would appear in the vignette!  It had nothing to do with Masayo whatsoever.

Other items that appear in the vignettes include an envelope, a letter opener, a bowl, and a dress.  Each is presented in a beautifully mysterious way, and it's through the author's creative storytelling that these common items are given power and meaning.  They, as was the case with the sewing machine, are also more than just everyday goods - they are also symbols of what's going on in the characters' lives, and as such they function on many levels.  The ability of the author to imbue these workaday pieces with such multifaceted metaphor is an example of her creativity and craft.

The novel was translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell, an American who only started studying the Japanese language in college.  You can find out more about her here.  Overall, I thought this was a stellar translation.  It was incredibly easy to read - so much so that, if it hadn't been clearly stated that it was a novel in translation, I would have believed that it was originally written in English.  For me, that is the sign of a well-translated work; the reading experience flows with a natural ease and rhythm.  There are no awkward phrases or unnatural-sounding word choices.  It was seamless.

If The Nakano Thrift Shop is indicative of Hiromi Kawakami's oeuvre, then I hope that more of her novels will be translated into English and made widely available.  This story was well-crafted and engaging, the characters endearing, and the overall reading experience was joyful and sweet.  This feeling is rare with modern novels, so having this book on my shelves will allow me to return to it whenever I'm in need of being enveloped by warmth and comfort.

Librorum annis,