BookBrowse Reviews People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami

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People from My Neighborhood


by Hiromi Kawakami

People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi  Kawakami X
People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi  Kawakami
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  • Paperback:
    Nov 2021, 176 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book



Akutagawa Prize-winner Hiromi Kawakami presents interconnected short stories exploring an eclectic Japanese neighborhood.

People from My Neighborhood is exactly what it sounds like — an unnamed narrator recounts a litany of odd characters and anecdotes she remembers from the Japanese neighborhood where she grew up. This motley crew of residents includes a man named Grandpa Shadows and another called Uncle Red Shoes; Love, local tavern owner and karaoke enthusiast; and the greeting squad, a group of people who stop time as they accost passersby with painstaking and nonsensical small talk.

The book is a hodgepodge, but it is anything but random. There are recurring characters, most notably the narrator's friend Kanae and Kanae's unnamed sister. The latter is one of the collection's most intriguing personages. In one story she shows the narrator "a white, squishy substance" that she reveals to be "Doll brains." In another, Kanae's sister finds a "thing" — a "malodorous whatever" — that gradually evolves into a boy, and then a man, whom she marries. She then becomes a medium helping the grief-stricken communicate with their loved ones on Japan's famed Mount Osore (see Beyond the Book).

In "The Hachirō Lottery," Hachirō is the eighth boy in a family of 15 (his name means "number eight"), passed around from neighbor to neighbor because his parents have their hands full. Whoever loses the Hachirō lottery takes the boy home for three months. Slightly odd but quotidian details like these keep the book grounded amid some of the wilder flights of fancy.

Stories often begin abruptly, as though you were in the middle of a conversation with the narrator and briefly spaced out — you feel you have to accept whatever is being said to catch up. "There's a hell, the old man said, for people who are mean to chickens." Of course there is, tell me more. Kawakami skirts the line between realism and the fantastical with precision. Many of the stories are bizarre, but they are neither too cute nor weird for the sake of being weird. Her language, translated with grace by Ted Goossen, is imminently quotable. In "The Tenement," a taxi driver lives in a tenement building that is haunted by the ghosts of the women who once lived there. The driver remarks at the local tavern that he has been out "driving with the girls." "[W]omen are women," he explains, "They're still fun to have around, even if they look sort of blurry and don't have legs." Needless to say, this book is very funny.

"The Rivals" features two girls named Yōko who hate each other so much that "people in the neighborhood took turns making sure the two girls stayed away from each other, for they had once actually started a fire in the stationery shop near the train station." In adulthood, one Yōko steals the other Yōko's husband, then unleashes a death curse on her. However, the god responsible for fulfilling the curse mistakes one Yōko for another and kills the spellcaster Yōko instead of the target. The remaining Yōko sues her husband for alimony and starts an organic vegetable company with the money.

There is little symbolism or profound meaning to interpret in these stories. The characters are given little depth. Instead, Kawakami offers a series of impressions — fragments of lives that are just slightly off-kilter from the everyday. Anyone who has lived in a close-knit neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else's business will recognize familiar situations, the fabric of which have been stretched like an old sweater over the bulky build of a strange and angular animal, limbs jutting out the neck-hole, fabric pulled taut over horns and scales and crooked teeth. The pleasure of reading People from My Neighborhood lies in the uncanny, the feeling of recognizing something familiar that isn't quite right, or something that could be real (such as chicken hell) but isn't (as far as we know).

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review first ran in the November 17, 2021 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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Beyond the Book:
  Mount Osorezan


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