Is it logical for one to fall in love with a book that also broke one’s heart? Banana Yoshimoto’s masterpiece of Japanese fiction was a short, sentimental, and satisfying read for me. As someone who aspires to write short fiction but hampered by a lack of creativity or inspiration, I realized that with Kitchen, I ended up reading what I wanted to write. Not that I want to write something sad but I really admire Yoshimoto’s writing and delivery of a slice of life story driven more by characters rather than plot. I could see myself revisiting this exquisite work again and again.
Kitchen consists of two novellas (the eponymous story and a shorter one, Moonlight Shadow) that explore love and loss. Both novellas involve young characters in the midst of vulnerable times as they attempt to cope with deaths of people they become attached to, mending wounds created by the loss of loved ones. Kitchen has believable, relatable characters, each of them pitiful, tinged with depression of varying degrees but despite their vulnerability, there is still latent strength within them, evoking senses of hope and optimism. Its only weakness is that the tone sometimes turns a tad preachy, generating lines akin to Paulo Coelho quotes. But these flat points are few and far in between in an otherwise strong work. At times sharply sad, the book never becomes overly depressing, and room is left for a gentle mix of light humor along with the sentimentality. Add in a little magic realism, which offered a reassuring familiarity for Haruki Murakami fans like me, and this book has delightfully turned out to be my cup of tea.
The English translation by Megan Backus brought out Yoshimoto’s skilled writing and I’m confident that the original text in Japanese was superb. I took my time with this relatively thin volume of only 150 pages, savoring every word and sentence as if reading poetry; and Yoshimoto’s prose is quite poetic. She is very masterful in painting the scenes that surround her characters and I’m most impressed by how she makes gloomy winter scenery appear vivid and striking. Yoshimoto constantly uses the sky and the weather as image motifs across the two stories. The various details such as the bite of a cold wind, the blueness of the night sky, the falling snow, among others, are of close relation, almost reflections, of the characters that they surround. Her descriptions of scenery are easily my favorite parts of the book.
I discovered that Kitchen is the favorite book of one of my former college professors, as well as a fictional character’s in a Japanese television drama, so I’m glad I finally picked up a copy after I was left convinced. I’m also glad that it’s a widely acclaimed international bestseller, so there is legitimate hype surrounding the book. Considered a representative work of contemporary Japanese literature, I think it deserves its lofty reputation. Based on my literary tastes, Kitchen was a quintessential little book in numerous aspects of fiction, especially Yoshimoto’s prose and handling of characters. This was some fine contemporary slice of life fiction sprinkled with magic realism that made it dazzlingly alluring.