The good: I love Japanese books and this book is interesting, strange and addictive in equal amounts.
The not-so-good: Some things are hinted at, but never fully revealed.
Why I chose it: Surprise from Allen & Unwin, thank you because Japanese books are (almost) better than cake.
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Publisher: Portobello Books (Allen & Unwin)
RRP: $27.99 (AUD)
Publication Date: 24th August 2016 (yes, you can buy it now!)
My rating: 9.5 out of 10
I am a sucker for books translated from the Japanese. Maybe it’s because I studied Japanese for years (but still can’t read beyond a picture book), maybe it’s because I have a fascination with the country and its people. Whatever it is, if I see a book translated to English from Japanese, I will read it quick sticks. I can’t recall ever having read a poor story written by a Japanese author – they are without a doubt quirky, intriguing and well written. The Nakano Thrift Shop is no exception. The delightfully interesting cover reveals a lovely story about the workers of a thrift shop.
The Nakano thrift shop is not a high class antiques shop, but rather a repository for the everyday second-hand goods. They sometimes get quirky stuff (such as a life-size 80s star cut-out holding a sewing machine) but it’s generally crockery and the odd kotatsu (heated table/blanket). The novel is told through the eyes of Hitomi, a young lady who works on the till. The shop is full of eccentric characters, starting with Mr Nakano, the owner. He’s had multiple wives and usually has one or two mistresses on the go. Despite his regular trips to ‘the bank’, he’s fond of his employees and looks after them well. His sister Masayo is an artist and is very kind hearted to Hitomi (despite Mr Nakano not approving of her lover). Takeo is of a similar age to Hitomi and the pair have a relationship that starts off awkwardly (Takeo is a man of few words), becomes heated and then settles into something that is equal parts awkward and familiar.
Each chapter of the book has its own title and reads like a short story in the lives of the characters at the thrift shop through the changing seasons. More and more of their private lives are gradually revealed as well as some odd situations (Mr Nakano being stabbed, Masayo’s lover’s over controlling landlord). I loved how layer by layer, I found out just a little more about the characters and could excitedly piece together what I knew. This was particularly true of Hitomi and Takeo’s relationship – it was stilted but it was still so fascinating! Perhaps this was because Takeo himself was such an enigma.
The tone of the book was quiet and unhurried, which I enjoyed because I felt it gave me permission to savour every word. Allison Markin Powell’s translation captures the Japanese culture and the subtle melancholy that Hitomi feels. The last chapter, a kind epilogue, ties things up nicely after the dreamy period of the thrift shop for Hitomi but it still left me with several questions to ponder.
This is a sweet and gentle book that will suck you right in to the magic of the characters’ everyday lives.