With the publication of Kitchen, the dazzling English-language debut that is still her best-loved book, the literary world realized that Yoshimoto was a young writer of enduring talent whose work has quickly earned a place among the best of contemporary Japanese literature.
Kitchen is an enchantingly original book that juxtaposes two tales about mothers, love, tragedy, and the power of the kitchen and home in the lives of a pair of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan. Mikage, the heroine, is an orphan raised by her grandmother, who has passed away. Grieving, Mikage is taken in by her friend Yoichi and his mother (who is really his cross-dressing father) Eriko. As the three of them form an improvised family that soon weathers its own tragic losses, Yoshimoto spins a lovely, evocative tale with the kitchen and the comforts of home at its heart.
In a whimsical style that recalls the early Marguerite Duras, “Kitchen” and its companion story, “Moonlight Shadow,” are elegant tales whose seeming simplicity is the ruse of a very special writer whose voice echoes in the mind and the soul.
Translated from the original Japanese by Megan Backus
The story collection Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto contains 3 titles but the second, Kitchen 2, is quite predictably a continuation of the first title, Kitchen 1. For that reason I think a novella titled Kitchen with a bonus short story called Moonlight Shadow is a better description of what is offered in this literary parcel.
My overriding response to this title is one of deep appreciation, but oddly I find it hard to explain precisely why.
What I do know, is why I am finding it hard to develop an objective argument for its quality – Kitchen has easily identifiable weaknesses.
The dialogue in both Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow is at times twee/demotic and in a couple of instances just plain confusing – confusing because it seems in such stark contrast to a profound and moving reflection by the narrator immediately prior. It is like soaring powerfully into the sky onboard a hulking airplane and then experiencing intermittent turbulence or a drop in altitude.
Whether or not this variability in prose quality can be attributed to Yoshimoto or her English translator Megan Backus is difficult to determine. For if responsible for some of its flaws, Megan Backus is surely equally responsible for many wonderful passages such as this…
Truly great people emit a light that warms the hearts of those around them. When that light has been put out, a heavy shadow of despair descends.
People aren’t overcome by situations or outside forces; defeat invades from within.
In the innermost recess of my heart the light of instinct was twinkling, and I was as free of doubt as if I had heard the command, “Go!”.
In retrospect I realize that fate was a ladder on which, at the time, I could not afford to miss a single rung. To skip out on even one scene would have meant never making it to the top, although it would have been by far the easier choice. What motivated me was probably that little light still left in my half-dead heart, glittering in the darkness. Yet without it, perhaps, I might have slept better.
Given the emotive storylines in Kitchen, Banana Yoshimoto’s characters are surprisingly one-dimensional. The conundrum for me though is that in spite of this, I found what the characters did very interesting – enthralling in fact. It is almost as though in keeping her characters at arms length Yoshimoto is dangling a carrot for readers – one that I was eager to follow.
Ultimately, I found this novella difficult to put down. It had a certain gritty and grounded quality that really appealed to me. While still intriguing, I did not engage with Moonlight Shadow quite as much, perhaps because of its mystical element.
Kitchen is the first Banana Yoshimoto title I have read, and despite noted weaknesses, I would definitely recommend it. I will certainly be going back for more of what Banana has to offer.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5
Genre: Drama, Literature, Romance, Translation
* This novel counts towards my participation in Tony’s January in Japan reading initiative.
About the Author: Banana Yoshimoto was born in 1964. In addition to Kitchen, she is the author of NP, Amrita, Asleep, Lizard, Goodbye Tsugumi, Hardboiled and Hard Luck, The Lake. Her stories, novels and essays have won numerous prizes both in Japan and abroad. She lives in Tokyo.
– Read an interview with Banana Yoshimoto