I have been travelling throughout August with intermittent internet access, so I haven’t been able to publish any posts. While I was away, I read Kitchen, the novella I discuss below by Banana Yoshimoto, Carol by the late, great Patricia Highsmith, and a translation of All Dogs Are Blue by Brazillian author Rodrigo de Souza Leão. As I mentioned, here is the first of the three:
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Megan Backus)
(Faber & Faber; 1993)
Mikage Sakurai’s grandmother, her last remaining relative, has died; she needs to find a new, one-person apartment. In the meantime, the somewhat unconventional Tanabe family offer her their couch. Kitchen is a story of love, death, and great Japanese food.
Yoshimoto’s ethereal prose calls to mind the feeling of exhaustion, almost of relief, which follows high emotions and tears. It feels like the calm time between being over the worst and the residue melancholy which follows. It’s a heated room on a winter’s afternoon: I found myself reading certain passages two, three times to let the words soothe me. This corresponds to Mikage’s situation: her grandmother, her last remaining relative, has passed away and we meet her after the funeral, as she is moving out of the apartment they shared for years. She is feeling raw yet tranquil, explaining how she was “always, at all times, afraid: “Grandma’s going to die.”” The reader follows Mikage through her grief process, and Yoshimoto navigates this with such a wonderfully gentle touch.
The Tanabe family consists of Yuichi, a former employee of Mikage’s late grandmother’s flower shop, and his mother, Eriko. Eriko is transgender and was once married as a man to Yuichi’s mother. Throughout the story, Eriko is the motivating force; she keeps the somewhat apathetic Yuichi and Mikage pushing ahead with their lives, although she is pretty scattered herself. A personal favourite of her lines to Mikage is “It’s not easy being a woman.” (Really?!) However, I felt that Eriko’s character has to compensate for Yuichi’s lack thereof – he’s a moody young man in a way that might work perfectly on screen, but comes across as quite passive on the page.
Mikage thanks the Tanabes for their hospitality by cooking dinner for them almost every day. Her cooking becomes a way of working through her pain at the loss of her grandmother too, as she confides in us that she believes there is something special about kitchens. This could be because of how people come together and make the most noise and sounds in this room – Mikage’s family has been leaving her behind one by one and the kitchen holds memories of animated life. I enjoyed this observation, there is something fascinating about the rooms different types of people put together to make their own.
Mikage and Yuichi are kindred spirits, even going so far as to sharing a dream and sharing some thoughts. This “novelistic”-ness called to mind what Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being about there being no problem with being “obvious” in the symbolism of a novel – by believing that there is an issue with it, we underestimate the human mind’s need for beauty in times of great stress. However, it does serve to make Yuichi even more wishy washy. It’s hard to imagine Mikage really going for him once she gets herself together, she’s too bright for him. For the time being, though, he’s what she needs. Yuichi, the comfort blanket.
I have a weakness for sweeping grand gestures in my fiction, and Kitchen definitely has its moments. That isn’t to say that the characters are brash and careless in their actions, but that they seem to be keenly aware of how fleeting life is through the death happening all around them. They treat each other with the knowledge that everything is temporary, turning soft and profound at every chance. It suits them, but it makes them seem younger than they are – or maybe I’m a little hardened?
Yoshimoto’s wholesome, earnest characters are almost not of this world – not completely a bad thing, but I was left wanting a little bit more from them. Her writing style is beautiful but I never felt like I was on solid ground with her plot. At 105 pages, plus a short story entitled Moonlight Shadow in the final pages, this book satisfied an afternoon but will never be a favourite.