22 August 2011

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Thoughts and Reflections
I admit, initially I judged this book by its cover. It's a cute cover, but with the overall appearance that this book is about domestic life. I wasn't keen to read about the cooking and cleaning habits of a modern Japanese woman. The only thing that got me reading this one was a lingering memory of a google search that declared Banana Yoshimoto as one of the best of Japan's contemporary writers. And yes, I was pleasantly surprised.

The book launches the reader right into the plot and characters. There is no dawdling here! The reader meets Mikage in the first days of grieving the death of her Grandmother, her last living relative. Yuichi, Mikage's Grandmother's florist, a boy of a similar age to Mikage, and his mother, a transvestite, then take Mikage into their home.

The book has a strange flow to it. At first I thought the novel would explore Mikage as she deals with an overwhelming sense of loneliness and grieving. However, this isn't the case. The hops through this process, not lingering long, but still revealing the depth of Mikage's grief and loneliness. The novel then hops to a profound death in the life of Yuichi. These deaths behave more as a bond between Mikage and Yuichi.

The book discusses themes of joy and happiness. There are numerous references regarding joy, happiness and despair. The author indicated that one cannot know true joy without knowing true despair. At the same time, the novel discusses the struggle to overcome despair. The novel also goes on to discuss complacency in modern society and the limitations people set on their own happiness. I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion on happiness in this novel and look forward to continuing and exploration of this theme. However, the book does not make a moral judgement on happiness or people in contemporary society. Rather, she focuses on Yuichi and Mikage and their joy and despair. This book is one that accepts that life is a mixture of both good and bad, positives and negatives. Rather than merely avoiding the bad or working merely get through it, the book focuses on personal growth as a result of trying life moments.

The relationship between Mikage and Yuichi is central in this novel. Theirs is one of shared experience. Their is one of those too young too fully understand, yet forced by circumstance to understand the finality of death. Both these characters have been shaken by the death of close relatives and care givers. These tragedies in their respective lives serve as defining moments in their personal growth. The book focuses not so much on the grief as the overcoming and growing as a result of.

Eriko to me is a bit of an enigma. This character instilled a sense of spontaneity, hope, and happiness into the lives of Yuichi and Mikage. However, I am undecided on the full meaning of this character. Eriko is a transvestite, once a man and now a woman, the owner of a gay club in Tokyo. I cannot decide whether Eriko is intended to prove the point of knowing oneself or the encapsulation of running away from one's problems and grief. She is a lovely character, but her meaning and role in the novel is somewhat confusing to me.
As it often seems to be with Japanese literature, descriptions of nature and the natural are key factors in developing the setting. Nature and emotion are descriptively tied in this novel, always described in tandem and in compliment. I very much enjoyed this descriptive method. I find it somehow very clear, whilst being subtle and never obvious or overt.

I am not entirely certain of the title. The obvious answer is that kitchens are calming to Mikage, a source of inspiration to her and part of her identity. What I don't completely understand is why kitchens. This could have been replaced by anything. I wondered about the role of food and hospitality in Japanese culture. Mikage's cooking is certainly a unifying factor between herself, Yuichi and Eriko. However, this somehow doesn't seem central. It was a pleasant aspect of the novel, though I'm not entirely sure I caught its full importance. On the other hand, maybe I did.

And so, I loved this book immediately (...once I started reading it, that is! Don't let the cover fool you!). The writing style was gentle. The I loved the themes, the characters, and the overall hopefulness and outlook of the novel. I would certainly recommend this novel and look forward to perusing more work of Banana Yoshimoto.

Point of Interest
Here is a link to an interview with Banana Yoshimoto.

About the Author
Banana Yoshimoto was born in 1964 in Tokyo, Japan. Banana Yoshimoto is her pen name. She apparently chose Banana because the banana flower is one of her favourite flowers. Her real name is Mahoko Yoshimoto. She graduated from Nihon University's Art College with a degree in literature. She began writing in 1987, whist working as a waitress at a golf club. Kitchen was her debut novel, finding great success in Japan and then internationally. In 1988 she won the Best Newcomer Artists Award Recommended Prize by the Minister of Education for Kitchen.

Things I Loved About This Novel
1. I loved the simplicity and directness of the language without being obvious or overdone. 
2. I loved the theme of grief, overcoming obstacles, personal growth, and happiness. 
3. I loved the characters: Eriko, Yuichi, and Mikage. Somehow they were relate-able, both simple and complex.
4. I loved the compliment between Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow. These stories were paired well together.
5. I loved Mikage's love of food and cooking. I was craving Japanese food the entire time I was reading!

No comments: