sat 02/03/2024

Hiromi Kawakami: People From My Neighbourhood review - deft and feather-light | reviews, news & interviews

Hiromi Kawakami: People From My Neighbourhood review - deft and feather-light

Hiromi Kawakami: People From My Neighbourhood review - deft and feather-light

Surreal short stories offer a glimpse into nosy neighbourly worlds

Award-winning Japanese writer Hiromi Kawakami © Bungeishunju Ltd

Deft and funny prose, in a feather-light translation by Ted Goossen, is the signature of Hiromi Kawakami's latest collection People From My Neighbourhood, a series of surreal and playful short stories offering a glimpse at the most curious and intriguing of all beings: neighbours.

It’s like a dream woven from the fragments of a world seen from a window. Each story is just three or four pages long. Sometimes the chapter titles only make sense in the final line of the story, and even then, we ask: why that detail? There are themes which link individual stories: gambling brings together the nineteenth and twentieth tales, “Lord of the Flies” and “The Baseball Game”, and curses run as a thread through the consecutive stories “Grandpa Shadows”, “The Six-Person Flats” and “The Rivals”. But the arbitrary reigns supreme, and connections are just what we choose to see. People From My Neighbourhood evokes a world where everything overlaps and connects, but nothing touches. It is pure interstitial observation.

Kawakami’s world adheres to its own logic. For instance, it seems as though our narrator is one of the only people to have aged in her neighbourhood. Not that things stay the same; rather that as one thing disappears, another takes its place, and some things started life old. Or maybe they started it as something else entirely. It’s as though the passing of time in the neighbourhood doesn’t really fit with age or change in that way. And yet, we accept this logic as we would in a dream: timelessness is a given, a condition of Kawakami’s compelling other-world.

Equally, this neighbourhood is not so unlike our own. Like most, this one is built on whispers, stories and hearsay. The few things uniting its inhabitants are curiosity and gossip. Wondering about the owner of the café “The Love”, the narrator says: “How the woman ever makes a living out of that place is a mystery to us all”. “Us”, the neighbourhood, the unit, brought together by nosy speculation.

It would be fair to describe the stories as surreal. But as the pages slid by, I found myself thinking … how could I talk about my neighbours without this level of surrealism? I know so little about who they really are. I see their lives in flashes, out of context, on guard and on display. They are the perfect subject for the genre.

And what’s more, when I was a child, didn’t I imagine them as caricatures – witches, old men, seers, rebels, charlatans? It’s as though People From My Neighbourhood reminds us of how we once perceived the world. The telling captures the elaborate fantasy that embellishes the stories of the very old when they recount their lives to the very young (the only people who will understand the magic they have lived, and not scoff).

But we mustn’t be deceived into thinking that Kawakami’s fluid and fragmentary text has no anchoring. It’s amazing how often Kawakami nails the essence of a character through their building (their house, tenement, gazebo, café, shack). It struck me while reading that dwellings are one of the few things about our neighbours that we can observe at our leisure; Kawakami’s short stories drive home just how much of an impression we form of people we don’t know from their abode. The old taxi driver finds his home in the ancient tenement. Grandpa Shadows inhabits a crumbling mansion. The Princess dwells in a rose-covered bungalow. Cursed families reside in the spooky Six-Person Flats. This all makes perfect sense. The fact that all of these spaces coexist within one neighbourhood … well, why not.

Kawakami's book is an intriguing and compelling bitesize read. It's also funny, full of heart and, despite appearances, deeply familiar. It asks the reader to embrace fluidity, but it does so quietly and without insistence. For all of our voyeurism and curiosity, we get the sense that, ultimately, this is a world that will exist and transform with or without witnesses.

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters