Which leads me nicely (some might say predictably, but that's 'cause they're just mean, and I'm not listening) to Banana Yoshimoto, the exotically-named Japanese author of my latest literary delight, 'Kitchen'. Obviously, 'Banana' is not Ms. Yoshimoto's birth name (she changed it from 'Strawberry'), but that is the one she thought would best suit her personality. Which really says all you need to know about her.
Despite her rather cheery pseudonym, Yoshimoto's debut novel - actually a two-part novella followed by a short story - is really rather short on smiles. In 'Kitchen', Mikage Sakurai moves in with a casual acquaintance, Yuichi Tanabe, after the death of her grandmother, and the poor girl struggles through the loss of the last family member she had left. Both Mikage and Yuichi have to learn to get over their repective losses before their lives can start again. In 'Moonlight Shadow', Satsuki is mourning the loss of her boyfriend, Hiroshi, when a chance meeting with a strange woman, Urara, gives her the opportunity to find a way past her emotional blockage. Not happy stories.
Both tales address the big questions of life: What's it all about? What happens when you lose a loved one? How do you keep going? Both Mikage and Satsuki find it difficult to adjust to a changed world and doubt they possess the strength to continue an empty life, but both are helped to move on by the new friends they find; for the first time, the girls confront the truth that relationships can be ephemeral and that life is more a series of friendships than one life-long set of relationships.
I bet you're still not sure what I actually thought about this book (and you wouldn't be the only ones), so I'll put your minds at rest; I liked it. But. Just as I'm in two minds about bananas, at least when it comes to the name, I'm still not completely convinced by Ms. Yoshimoto's writing. For one thing, as I previously alluded to, the two stories in this book are very similar in theme, and, at times, I really couldn't feel any difference between the two characters. Mikage could have been Satsuki, and Satsuki could have been Mikage (except for the fact that Mikage did a lot more cooking); just as some people criticise Haruki Murakami for writing the same characters over and over again, Yoshimoto seems to write very one-dimensional people.
However, the biggest problem I have with our little Banana is that her writing seeems to be schizophrenic in the split between description and dialogue. Many's the time (in this book and in 'Goodbye Tsugumi' and 'Amrita') I have been lulled into a state of comfortable numb enjoyment by Yoshimoto's work, only to receive a rude awakening from her wretched, childish dialogue. This may be deliberate (many of the characters are teenagers); it may be an issue with the translator (unfortunately, my Japanese isn't good enough for me to be able to check this any time soon); it could well just be an aversion on my part to what I consider to be overly-American jargon in the dialogue. Whatever it is, it makes me cringe at times, and that's a shame because I do like the ideas behind her books.
Please don't be put off by the last couple of paragraphs; it's sometimes easier to write about the negatives than the positives, and there is a lot of good reading to be had in this short work. Give Banana a go, and I'm sure you won't regret it. Just be aware that in amongst the sumptuous yellow flesh, just as in a banana, you may find some squashy blackish bits. Yuck.