The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

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Translated by Allison Markin Powell

Review by Annabel

There are some books you can judge by their covers. Portobello books have triumphed in this respect with the evocative ‘levitation’ portraits photographed by Natsumi Hayashi used on their editions. The levitating girls seem to encapsulate the emotional limbo of the books’ heroines. As if the covers hadn’t already drawn me in, I would have been hooked from the first page of The Nakano Thrift Shop

You know what I mean? Mr Nakano had a habit of saying this.
I was caught off guard when he said abruptly, ‘You know what I mean – pass me that soy sauce pourer.’ […]
‘When you say, “You know what I mean,” isn’t it, well, out of place?’ I asked.
Mr Nakano set down his bowl on the table. ‘Did I say, “You know what I mean”?’
‘You did,’ Takeo affirmed in a murmur from just beside him.
‘You know what I mean – I don’t say that.’
‘You just said it again.’
Mr Nakano scratched his head in an exaggerated gesture.
‘It must be a verbal tic.’
‘It’s a strange one.’
I passed the soy sauce pourer to Mr Nakano, who doused his two pieces of pickled daikon with it and then munched away on them.
‘I guess it’s part of a conversation that I have inside my own head.’
He went on, ‘For example, in my mind I think: if A happens, then B, so that must mean C, and it follows with D. But when I start speaking, I just say D, so then, “You know what I mean,” comes out unintentionally.’ (p.1/2)

This is a delightfully funny novel – its humour is so gentle, yet already we are getting the measure of Mr Nakano, owner of the second-hand store of the title. His shop has been there for over twenty-five years, and his latest assistants are our narrator Hitomi, and Takeo who drives the truck on pick-ups and house clearances.

Mr Nakano’s shop is unpretentious (he sells any objects of real worth at auction), it contains a cornucopia of the mundane and useful, tasteful and vulgar, in styles for all pockets, plus a wide variety of objets just waiting to find the one person in the world who wants them. It can be busy, but more often business trickles through, leaving the pensive Hitomi space to think and imagine what everyone else is doing. There are some novels in which not a lot appears to happen – this is one of them, but The Nakano Thrift Shop is full of incident, little things that add up to a beguiling whole, such as Mr Nakano’s ongoing problems with his love life:

It was pure chance that I met Mr Nakano’s ‘bank’.

By his ‘bank’, I mean Mr Nakano’s lover. Ever since Takeo had at some point told me that when Mr Nakano would say, ‘Just off to the bank,’ he was most likely meeting his lover, the two of us had been in the habit of referring to this woman of Mr Nakano’s – whom we had never seen – as the ‘Bank’.

I happened to come across ‘the Bank’ on the street near the bank. (p70)

Mr Nakano is also on his third wife, whilst carrying on with ‘the Bank’! There is also the matter of Hitomi’s own love life. She is a shy girl, but has developed feelings for Takeo, who is even more reticent than she is. In their fledgling relationship, it is Hitomi who has to lead socially and it’s not easy for her. Needless to say Mr Nakano thinks this is all marvellous. Will love blossom for this pair?

The fourth main character in this novel is Masayo, Mr Nakano’s sister. She is an artist, and as the novel goes on, she increasingly comes to help in the shop, offering advice like a mother hen, as her brother’s relationship crises reach critical.

Each chapter is named after and focused around a particular object, and this gives the novel the feel of being a serial – a set of episodes with an underlying story arc. Hitomi is an endearing narrator, quietly observant, slightly wistful in nature yet often frustrated over her attempts to make Takeo fall in love with her, you can’t help but like her for her matter of factness and her wry commentary on her daily life.

If you enjoyed the beguiling novel by Yoko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor, Kawakami’s book will surely charm you too. Both share restraint and gentleness, written in understated prose which is beautifully translated, but the rivers of emotion run deep underneath. As I mentioned earlier, The Nakano Thrift Shop is also delightfully light-hearted and I loved reading every page of it.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Hiromi Kawakami, The Nakano Thrift Shop (Portobello, 2016) ISBN: 978-1846276002, paperback original, 256 pages.

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