Published July 23rd 2001 by Faber and Faber (first published January 30th 1988)
Author: Banana Yoshimoto
Genre: Fiction, short stories, Japanese literature
Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
“The place I like best in this world is the kitchen.”
Kitchen juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan. It is a startlingly original first work by Japan’s brightest young literary star and is now a cult film.
When Kitchen was first published in Japan in 1987 it won two of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, climbed its way to the top of the bestseller lists, then remained there for over a year and sold millions of copies. Banana Yoshimoto was hailed as a young writer of great talent and great passion whose work has quickly earned a place among the best of modern literature, and has been described as ‘the voice of young Japan’ by the Independent on Sunday.
My reading of this book is one of those rare but brilliant occassions where I have had it recommended to me, borrowed it from the friend who did the recommending, and then wondered how I ever went through life having not read it before.
If it wasn’t for that recommendation, it’s unlikely that I would have picked up a book by Banana Yoshimoto, or at least it would have been a long time before she appeared on my ‘book radar’.
I borrowed this from a friend on a Saturday evening, and began reading it as soon as I got home, and by the time I stopped reading I was almost halfway through. This is a gem. I was astounded at how deep and complex the story feels to read, despite having what seems like a basic plot. The writing style captures that sense of life, and of lives lived, despite the simplicity of the story.
The first story, ‘Kitchen’ is narrated by Mikage Sakurai, whose parents died when she was a young age, meaning her grandparents had to bring her up. Her grandfather died when she was still at school, leaving her with her grandmother. We meet her at the point of her grandmother’s recent death.
The romance of this story is grown from Mikage’s affinity for kitchens. She finds something in kitchens that I’d never considered before, of any room. Reading this story was almost like becoming aware of the spaces around me, and which room I would choose as my preferred one.
“No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it’s a kitchen, if it’s a place where they make food, it’s fine with me.”
The main themes of the story are grief, motherhood, love and tragedy. We also have a transexual woman in the form of Yuichi Tanabe’s mother, Eriko. Yuichi had a close bond with Mikage’s grandmother, and her death is the reason for their meeting. Mikage moves in with Yuichi and Eriko, and they become an unlikely family which seems right, despite the hastiness of its creation.
We come to get to know these characters and feel for them and their various sources of grief. They connect with each other and Mikage navigates herself through Yuichi’s kindness and acceptance of her as this extra member of his family. They also connect through food, and this is a key aspect of the story later on.
“No matter what, I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without that, I am not alive. That is what makes the life I have now possible.”
It’s beautifully written, and I found myself reading it in the way that I read books by Jeanette Winterson. I love the way life is captured and explored, and how it progresses. I became sucked into the story, completely attached to it. It also made me feel similar to when I read Mist by Miguel de Unamuno in how the writing manages to reflect the character’s outlook and experience of life.
Once I finished reading ‘Kitchen’, I thought the next story would be good too, but not as good as the first. I was blown away by the first, in that ‘new discovery’ way which nothing can touch. But…I have to admit, ‘Moonlight Shadow’ had all the elements of my perfect kind of magic realism story. And I’m pretty sure it comes under magic realism. It’s a love story, it’s about loss, it’s about dealing with that loss but also about the possibility of moving on through the most rare and beautiful experience. It’s ethereal in the way it feels to read, like you could believe it really happened. But it’s just short enough to make you wonder and want to re-visit it.
“I’ll never be able to be here again. As the minutes slide by, I move on. The flow of time is something I cannot stop. I haven’t a choice. I go.”
It’s the kind of story that would be easy to turn into a longer piece, to explore more deeply. However, what makes it brilliant is the place we leave the story at. That it isn’t explored further, it just is. We’re wondering how and why, but in the end that doesn’t matter, it just is. And that’s kind of what it’s like to lose someone.
Link to the book on Goodreads: Kitchen