Book Club: Strange Weather in Tokyo

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I came across this book somewhere between an early morning writing class and a tube station near my old work.  I like to go to the class when my schedule and the stars align because it starts before the city wakes and ends in time for work.  I’d had a particularly good session and felt pretty inspired so when I spied a stand through the window of Foyles showcasing female authors I couldn’t resist sticking my head in.  And it was there that I found Strange Weather in Tokyo by Japanese author, Hiromi Kawakami.

In another life I dabbled in translation and I’ve always loved the creative process that comes with breathing your culture and context into another person’s work.  It was only when I studied translation that I became aware of the responsibility that befalls a translator to fairly represent an author’s work and convey it in a way that the target audience gets the same feeling reading the work as those who read the original text.  Allison Markin Powell’s translation is really great.

Strange Weather in Tokyo is Kawakami’s fourth novel.  I hadn’t read her other work’s but was inspired to purchase The Nakano Thrift Shop after reading this book so I guess the spoiler alert here is that I liked it.

The story opens in a bar where two supposed strangers catch sight of one another and at once feel a familiarity in each other’s company.  Tsukiko is a 37 year old woman living in Tokyo with a penchant for gracelessly pouring drinks and eating alone at the bar.  The man on the neighbouring stool turns out to be none other than her old Japanese teacher, Mr Matsumoto who she can’t bear to address as anything other than Sensei.  Now in his 70s he shares her love of fermented foods and alcohol and so blossoms their friendship.

Still single and uninterested in revisiting the type of men she has dated in the past, Tsukiko prefers to spend her time with Sensei, who is always impeccably turned out; his mysterious briefcase always close to hand.  At first glance their relationship seems a little perfunctory – they sit together at the bar yet neither one feels the need for chit chat. They settle their individual bills before both going their separate ways.  However, throughout the tale their mutual respect and affection blooms and we see Tsukiko struggle with the feelings she develops for her former teacher. The friendship evolves into something more and their close bond deepens, each one drawing the other a little nearer into their lives. It’s a tender story of real intimacy without the slightest trace of smut.

I found the characters to be nuanced and endearing.  At times I did find Tsukiko a little annoying, especially when she reverted to the timid girl she must have been in school but that aside I liked her.  It’s an unconventional love story; a complicated (at times unnecessarily so) and layered partnership which has plenty of time to breathe and evolve as the novel progresses. I was relieved that Kawakami played it out the way she did and avoided playing out some kind of sordid age-gap love shock story.

If you’re looking for a light read that will give you the chance to look through the lens of another culture I’d recommend this book.  I’d happily read it again.

Until next time,

L X

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