Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori and Ian MacDonald
Review by Anna Hollingsworth
In the short story The Last Obon, Satsuki is mistaken for the ghost of her aunt’s daughter by a stranger. Satsuki and the stranger — Yohei, an old acquaintance of the now deceased aunt — end up chatting:
‘But it didn’t strike you that if Aunt Kaido’s daughter died in childhood her ghost should’ve been the same age as when she died?’
‘That did puzzle me,” admitted Yohei. ‘I mean, you’re very grown-up!’
The exchange is what lies at heart of Kyoko Nakajima’s short stories: her deceptively simple plots and dialogues are actually cover-ups for much more complex ponderings on cultural narratives, connections to the past and ways in which memories transcend reality.
Things Remembered and Things Forgotten brings together ten of these cunningly constructed stories in a thematically unified collection. In them siblings travel back to commemorate their dead ancestors in their late mother’s rural house and uncover hidden family history; a man with dementia goes missing as his horrified family follow his travels on a GPS tracker; a woman discovers that her dead relative who was assumed to be a recluse actually lead a secret love life and fostered a strange passion for a pet civet; a ghost boy steals food for a neglected girl. The dead and the living walk hand in hand through the collection.
The stories are all narrated in a very matter-of-fact way, with no embellishments or pretentions. This straightforwardness made me raise an eyebrow at the start of the eponymous first story. The reader is dropped into a car with a husband and wife:
Yumi pressed the power window switch, and Masaru tilted his seat back, shutting his yes. ‘Are you going to take a nap?’ ‘I’m not sleepy. Anyway we’ll be there soon.’
Nakajima’s writing is plain in a way that makes you expect it to grow into understated metaphors, sarcasm, gripping dialogue, anything — but it stays the way it is.
Bear with it, though, because under the layer of mundanity — both in style and the stories’ homely settings — there is a much more intricate world. Nakajima slowly peels back layers of Japanese post-war history and human memory. One particular gem is The Harajuku House where what is set up as a straightforward ghost story branches out into a re-telling of several decades of Japanese history through a naïve student’s passion for the inhabitant of a mysterious house. As the story builds up into metaphysical questioning, you won’t know if you’re dealing with ghosts or overlapping realities — or whether they’re in fact the same thing.
As another tour de force of the collection, The Last Obon questions whether our memories are really ours. In it three sisters reunite for Obon, a festival to remember the dead, and the barriers between this world and that of the deceased are temporarily lowered. As much as I oppose comparing Japanese authors to Murakami as a standard, Nakajima’s stories have a Murakami-esque feeling of magical realism to them, as if there are invisible currents running through the world we think we know.
It turns out that the plainness — and even annoying oversimplicity — of Nakajima’s style is a façade to much more, just as in the stories the ordinariness of the supernatural is a front to a more complex worldview. This collection deserves its place among things to be remembered.
Anna is a journalist and linguist.
Kyoko Nakajima, Things Remembered and Things Forgotten (Sort of Books, 2021). 978-1908745965, 256pp., paperback original.
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