This month I read two novels for the Japanese Literature Challenge that explore romantic relationships of a very unusual kind, with mixed results.
No 340 Twinkle Twinkle by Kaori Ekuni, translated by Emi Shimokawa
Mitsuko and Shoko are a young married couple – he is a medical doctor and she is a translator – who they live in a bright, clean apartment where Mitsuko brings Shoko her favourite foods when he comes home from work and she irons his bedsheets every night before sleep.
However, this seemingly perfect union is hiding a secret, for theirs is a marriage of convenience. Mitsuko is gay and Shoko is an alcoholic, who is prone to bouts of mental illness. They love each other in their own way, but have only married to appease their parents. Mitsuko still sees his boyfriend Kon, while Shoko stays at home, drinking and singing songs to a Cezanne print in their living room. Can this marriage bring them the stability they both crave, or will it exacerbate the issues they are trying to hide from the world?
It was fine to have marriages like ours. You didn’t expect much, you didn’t wish for much. You didn’t lose anything, there was nothing to be afraid of…embracing water.
Written in alternate chapters from Shoko and Mitsuko’s point of view, Twinkle Twinkle is an odd little book. Despite the serious subject matter, it is light and charming in tone and doesn’t have any real depth of characterisation. Mitsuko and Shoko never really come alive and their parents and friends are vague characters, there to question the validity of the pair’s union rather than to provide any context or wider concern. There are tensions and incidents that move the plot along, but the denouement doesn’t really address any of the issues raised throughout the narrative.
Overall, Twinkle Twinkle is a pleasant, if somewhat forgettable read.
READ ON: IBOOKS
NUMBER READ: 406
NUMBER REMAINING: 340
The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Allison Markin Powell
Even a cracked pot has a lid that fits
This was my first encounter with Strange Weather in Tokyo author Kawakami and based on this thoughtful and subtle love story, it won’t be my last.
Tsukiko is a woman in her late thirties, who leads a quiet life with few friends and a distant family. As she eats dinner in a cheap diner one evening, she realises that the man sitting beside her is her old high school literature teacher, whom she refers to only as Sensei. The pair strike up a conversation, reminiscing over old times, and then start to meet sporadically over the following months, to drink and eat together. Their relationship develops, but what it is developing into is hard to pin down. The pair are not lovers, yet Tsukiko is jealous when she sees Sensei talking to another woman. She begins a tentative relationship with an old school friend, but compares him to Sensei at every opportunity. Sensei is equally conflicted. He asks Tsukiko to come away for a weekend with him, but takes her to the island where his wife is buried.
Sensei and I didn’t see each other very often. It stands to reason, since we weren’t a couple. Yet, even when we were apart, Sensei never seemed far away. Sensei would always be Sensei. On a night like this, I knew he was out there somewhere.
There is little plot to speak of. Tsukiko and Sensei spend time together then don’t see each other for a period of months but the very simplicity of The Briefcase is what makes it so moving. These are two lonely isolated people, who have made the most unlikely of connections and aren’t sure how to move their relationship forward, or even if they should. With each encounter, their connection grows and so does our understanding of their lives and their wants.
The development of their love story is set against a backdrop of the changing Japanese seasons and the food and drink they consume together is lovingly and intricately described. The romance might be at a minimum, but the emotion is deep and Kawakami has created a poignant and moving tale of finding human connection where we least expect it.
READ ON: IBOOKS
NUMBER READ: 407
NUMBER REMAINING: 339
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!