Title/Author: People From My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
In a nutshell (Publisher):
From the author of the internationally bestselling Strange Weather in Tokyo, a collection of interlinking stories that masterfully blend the mundane and the mythical—”fairy tales in the best Brothers Grimm tradition: naïf, magical, and frequently veering into the macabre” (Financial Times).
A bossy child who lives under a white cloth near a tree; a schoolgirl who keeps doll’s brains in a desk drawer; an old man with two shadows, one docile and one rebellious; a diplomat no one has ever seen who goes fishing at an artificial lake no one has ever heard of. These are some of the inhabitants of People from My Neighborhood.
In their lives, details of the local and everyday—the lunch menu at a tiny drinking place called the Love, the color and shape of the roof of the tax office—slip into accounts of duels, prophetic dreams, revolutions, and visitations from ghosts and gods. In twenty-six “palm of the hand” stories—fictions small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand and brief enough to allow for dipping in and out—Hiromi Kawakami creates a universe ruled by mystery and transformation.
I enjoyed Strange Weather in Tokyo so much that when I found out about the author’s latest collection of short stories, I knew I had to read it! And my, in the beginning, I just couldn’t make head or tail of it, because it was so, how should I say, weird? Like, what-was-the-point-of-the-story weird. What was even weirder, they kept me turning the pages! I think probably because, one, the stories were bite-sized; and two, I was intrigued.
So, what’s it about? This collection gives the reader a peek into the lives of the people in this weird, one-of-a-kind neighborhood somewhere in Japan. Here lived a taxi driver who gave rides to three female ghosts who lived with him in a haunted tenement; an owner of a drinking place who served leftovers to her customers, and a dog who constantly barked and whose bites drew blood, just to name some. Here, expect strange occurences too, like if you found another shadow attached to you, you’d die the next day, or you might wake up one day and find yourself floating above your bed, or even waking up only to realize you looked and behaved like a pigeon. To counterbalance all that weirdness, you could walk near Uncle Red Shoes (who loved dancing the grand fouettés on the street) and get some good luck rubbed onto you.
There were also special events that took place, like the lotteries they ran, where losers would have to care for a baby (who never grew up) who looked exactly like a book, a sports event where its activities had nothing to do with sports, or a baseball game when one had to pay to play.
These stories, ranging from fables to myths, are absurd, strange and mysterious. Oh, there are some degree of horror too – a hairy hand grasping onto a child’s leg and not letting it go; squishy stuff found in a girl’s desk drawer apparently were a doll’s brains, and a man’s body turned into a swarm of flies and flew away.
The stories were bizarre and often left open-ended. As mentioned above, in the beginning I was trying to make sense of them all and was often left perplexed. For example, in ‘The Baseball Game’, two kids had been skipping classes to play baseball (which isn’t at all like baseball), something they couldn’t afford. The narrator found out later that a bird with five fingers and a human face had been helping them pay for the game. All they had to do was to let it peck their bottoms in return.
I was trying to find the point of it all but just couldn’t. So in the end, I decided to suspend disbelief and just go with the flow and let the stories do their thing. Surprisingly, I found myself enjoying them, often intrigued by its characters, and in the end, did enjoy some stories.
One of them was ‘Sports Day’ – about a local bank-run day which didn’t involve physical activities but events like “best loan evaluation”, “best anti-fraud strategy for direct deposits” and “best marketing of financial products”, where the one in power decided the winner, so it didn’t matter whether the winner deserved it or not, even if the winning entry was a cartoon drawing (tell me, how relatable this is in regards to those in power!); in ‘The Family Trade’ a man didn’t want to continue his family business went about trying other trades from banking to gourmet and being a monk, but in the end doing what the family did (made me think, one can’t fight fate!); and how quickly Kanae’s reputation changed from ‘juvenile delinquent’ to ‘the pride of our hometown’ when she became a famous fashion designer in France in ‘The Juvenile Delinquent’ (one really can’t control what people say!), and in ‘The Empress’ a shopping arcade held an annual lottery which awarded the first prize winner three wishes and a man asked for the most beautiful woman, in which it had a very satisfying ending.
Quirky, mysterious, weird and whimsical, this collection of connected ‘palm-sized’ stories are best read a few at one go, especially if these kind of stories aren’t your thing, and trying to grasp the meaning of each might just be too much, well, for me at least (although I’m a fan of quirkiness and magical realism).
That said, as much as I enjoyed this collection, it didn’t really leave an impression and I could hardly recall the stories after awhile.
A word of warning though, if you’re ever in this neighborhood and come across a house whose backyard had trees that are ladened with fruits, be wary, because you might fiind dead bodies buried under them.
Skip it or read it? I’d only recommend this if magical realism is your thing. I do think, however, that this would be a great ‘waiting book’ companion, if you ‘just need something to read’ to kill some time.
Thank you Soft Skull Press for the gifting me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are mine.