People From My Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami

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Translated by Ted Goossen

Review by Anna Hollingsworth

With Hiromi Kawakami, you don’t know what to expect other than that her writing will be wonderfully odd. Her gentle quirkiness and eccentric character explorations gained popularity in the anglophone world with Strange Weather in Tokyo.With the fourth English translation of her work the quirkiness just keeps growing.

People From My Neighbourhood as the title of this book is beautifully understated and blatantly observational, like the title of a biological table of flora and fauna found in a certain area. And this is sort of what it is: a witty, minimalistically written catalogue of people in one topsy-turvy neighbourhood.

Kawakami’s latest celebrates characters who’d be misfits anywhere else apart from this neighbourhood. The narrator — who we learn very little about other than that they are a keen observer — skips across decades (we assume; in this neighbourhood you can’t be quite sure about the concept of time) in little anecdotes and follows the everyday dramas, gossip and quarrels of this chamber of curiosities. There are creatures who evolve into human-like babies; a Music House that you can enter only on your birthday but no one really talks about what happens inside; Kanae, a juvenile delinquent turn fashion designer; revolutionary children plotting against the government; a pandemic of pigeonitis where the afflicted are struck by pigeon-like behaviour; a foreign diplomat and street war; and a Dr Miranda who teaches that people hatched from eggs.

All of this beautiful surreality is narrated as if it is the most mundane thing possible. Take the School of Sweets — an institution focused on home economics and built from sweets — the workings of which are described in an unflinching matter-of-fact way: “It was relatively easy to replicate those parts of the school that were made of regular cookie dough or pastry, but brand names like Mikado and Alfort presented a problem, for it was hard to find all the ingredients listed on the packaging.” I found myself nodding along, perfectly convinced that this is the natural order of things.

Through the mundanity, Kawakami delivers snappy irony on human gullibility and social conventions: “According to him, the best remedy for loneliness was an eye medicine made from a combination of antibiotics and boiled broccoli. A prescription was required for the antibiotics, but Miranda said he could give me one whenever I needed it.” She’s as sharp an observer as her narrator.

People From My Neighbourhood defies definition: in the blurb, the chapters are called ‘palm of the hand’ stories. You could go for a collection of connected microfiction, perhaps, or a novel that is broken into pieces like a puzzle. Categories don’t really matter, though, when it comes to Kawakami, for she writes according to her own rules.

There is nothing quite like this Alice in Wonderland experience of a book. You want to linger on with every snippet but can’t wait to flip the pages onto the next one, and the one after that. It’s quirky perfection in the palm of your hand.

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Anna is a bookworm, student linguist and journalist.

Hiromi Kawakami, People From My Neighbourhood (Granta, 2020). 978-1846276989, 128pp., paperback original.

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