The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura

Translated by Lucy North

Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth

There’s a particular skill to pulling off a character who is objectively reprehensible but nevertheless wins over the sympathies of the reader. The narrator in Natsuko Imamura’s The Woman in the Purple Skirt offers a glorious example of psychological manipulation of the reader, executed to off-kilter perfection.

In an unnamed Japanese town, a woman always dressed in a purple skirt — hence known as the Woman in the Purple Skirt to the neighbourhood — is a minor local celebrity. Every week, she’ll appear on same park bench to enjoy a custard-filled cream bun, bought from the same bakery, and eat it with the same completely focused enjoyment. She’ll glide through the crowded shopping district and, seemingly miraculously, never collide with anyone. Local children dare each other to talk to her or touch her; others try to walk into her just to see if it’s possible; and legend has it that one sighting of her a day means good luck, three the opposite. The Woman in The Purple Skirt is a kind of living urban myth, and as with urban myths, no one actually knows any facts about her.

Apart from the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan, that is. She is known as such only to herself as she doesn’t have the same legend status as the Woman in the Purple Skirt; but from her invisible position, she’s able to keep a close eye on the legendary woman. A quirky unreliable narrator, she tells the reader that she is desperate to make friends with the Woman in the Purple Skirt, but her opus moderandi soon takes on more sinister hues.

The brilliance in Imamura’s novel lies in how the characters evolve from pitiful to cunning to menacing to something close to American Psycho. To say more would spoil the effect, but take my word, you will be confused about where your sympathies lie.

Imamura is a sharp observer of human behaviour. She marches out a cast of hotel cleaners, company directors and curious children. They’re all caricatures to an extent, making their behaviours painfully recognizable from this life, from co-worker back-stabbing to corporate gossip and ways of perceiving others. The author packs personalities into little details with delicious dexterity. The first time we meet the Woman in the Purple Skirt, she “proceeds to eat her cream bun, holding one hand cupped underneath it, in case any of the custard filling spills onto her lap. After gazing for a second or two at the top of the bun, which is decorated with sliced almonds, she pops that too into her mouth, and proceeds to chew her last mouthful particularly slowly and lingeringly.” Who needs anything more?

The story is delivered with addictively dark humour. It’s not unlike Sayaka Murata’s brand of darkness in Convenience Store Woman or Earthlings in celebrating oddness and laughing at society through it. Like Murata, through her protagonists, Imamura points a finger at people’s gullibility and the silliness of what is considered “normal”. The two hundred and some pages are peppered with strange little anecdotes; sibling rivalry over pudding and possibly murderous school friends may seem detached from the main narrative but these quirks serve to highlight the oddball-charm of the novel.

There are some minor flaws in the translation — for example, the tenses don’t always hold — but don’t let that distract you from the whole.  This is the first work by Imamura to be translated into English in what looks like a tsunami of Japanese authors being discovered by non-Japanese audiences. Imamura is certainly one I want to read more from, and there is no lack of future material as she has won some of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes. While I wait, though, I’ll enjoy this surreal treat with the same all-encompassing dedication that the Woman in the Purple Skirt cherishes her cream buns with.

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Anna is a journalist and linguist.

Natsuko Imamura, The Woman in the Purple Skirt (Faber, 2021). 978-0571364671, 224pp., hardback.

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