Recently I wondered what I could start sharing here that might appeal to some of y’all, and was struck with the scathingly brilliant idea to start writing book reviews. I read enough as it is — why not share my thoughts, however unoriginal or unpopular? I’ll be mostly reviewing Japanese literature — I don’t have a B.A. in Japanese Studies just for nothing — but I might move away from that niche if I find a particularly gush-worthy read.
Anyways, these reviews/impressions/rambles probably won’t be too in-depth at first, but I’m hoping to develop a knack for dissecting the meat of a book objectively enough without spoiling it for everybody. (I know, I know, terrible metaphor.) Fair warning: I am not the greatest at summarizing stories, so I’ll always provide a link to the book where you can read its pitch-perfect synopsis.
For this first installment of Pearl Reviews, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on Hiromi Kawakami‘s novel Strange Weather in Tokyo, translated by Allison Markin Powell and published by Counterpoint Press. This came out a few years ago, so I’m very much late to the party, but considering my TBR list is over 1000 books, I’m lucky I was able to get to it at all.
Strange Weather in Tokyo starts off with thirty-eight-year-old Tsukiko and her former Japanese teacher “Sensei” reconnecting by chance at a favorite bar of theirs. Despite the age difference — Sensei is thirty years older than Tsukiko — the two form a whimsical, tentative friendship that eventually morphs into an quiet intimacy.
Previous to reading Strange, I’d only been exposed to two of Kawakami’s short stories — her debut story “Kamisama” which I read in Japanese, and “Blue Moon” published in the Japan issue of GRANTA. I already knew what to expect from Kawakami’s writing: lavish descriptions of food, experimental use of punctuation, and sparse but charged detail. Time isn’t marked so much by a calendar, but by poignant observations of changes in the weather — time is a human construct, after all, but nature is eternal.
Their friendship starts free of expectations or obligations, earmarked by nights spent drinking at their mutual haunt, a petty squat over baseball (very relatable), humorous clashing of beliefs — “A young lady mustn’t use a word like ‘butt.'” — and some more drinking. Tsukiko and Sensei’s excursions out of the city provide lush ground for reminiscing and self-examination. Mushroom hunting in the forest, far from the usual hectic cadence of city life, proves the perfect setting for Tsukiko mulls over the dissonance in her life:
“It seemed strange to be surrounded by so many living things. When I was in Tokyo, I couldn’t help but feel like I was always alone…”
At times, Tsukiko was too clingy for my taste, Sensei too apathetic, and I found myself focusing more on how they interacted with their settings more so than with each other. Tsukiko herself admits she’s more of a child than an adult, a level of unflinching self-awareness that few are willing to explore:
“I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper adult. I had been very grown-up in primary school. But as I continued through secondary school, I, in fact, became less grown-up. And then as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person. I suppose I just wasn’t able to ally myself with time.”
I knew it was coming, but I was still disappointed that the friendship evolved into a romance. I suppose that’s me waving my ageism flag. I much preferred the whimsical cadence of their friendship. However, Kawakami paints the gradual evolution of their relationship in such a way that the romance didn’t feel forced or perverse. I still could have gone without it, but I won’t say it was poorly done.
Overall, Strange Weather in Tokyo is a strange read, but a worthwhile one. I’ll give it a 3 out of 5 pearl rating. (Yes, pearls, not stars, we’re too cool for stars here, obviously.)
Pearl Rating: 🦪🦪🦪
Thanks for reading! I’ll be back soon with another Pearl Review in the near future. (I really will, I swear).
Pick up a copy of Strange Weather in Tokyo wherever you find your books (preferably your local library or independent bookstore!).
Next review will be on Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police!
This review also appears in a slightly different format on my other blog at Cat and Moth Writings.