Author: Hiromi Kawakami
Genre: Contemporary, Literary fiction
Translated by: Allison Markin Powell
Publication Date: 1st August 2013
Read: 10th May – 13th May 2017
‘This strange weather must be a result of the strange thing you said, Tsukiko,’ Sensei murmured, leaning out from the veranda.
It wasn’t strange, I retorted. Sensei gave a wry smile.
Tsukiko is drinking alone in her local sake bar when by chance she meets one of her old high school teachers and, unable to remember his name, she falls back into her old habit of calling him ‘Sensei’. After this first encounter, Tsukiko and Sensei continue to meet. Together, they share edamame beans, bottles of cold beer, and a trip to the mountains to eat wild mushrooms. As their friendship deepens, Tsukiko comes to realise that the solace she has found with Sensei might be something more.
If you like fast-paced, plot-driven stories, this may not the book for you. But if you enjoy leisurely-paced character-driven books, then it’s just that.
The narrative is sedate, bordering on lethargic at times, but it works well with the simplistic yet graceful descriptions of setting and gives a sense of the slow passage of time. This does, however, mean that despite being a very short novel (only 176 pages) it’s quite a slow read.
But the introspective prose makes up for the pace, giving us a clear and detailed view into Tsukiko’s inner thoughts and psyche. At heart, Tsukiko is an introvert; she has few friends and is satisfied with her own company until she meets Sensei. (In Japanese ‘sensei’ means teacher, Harutsuna Matsumoto used to be one of her teachers in school, so this is what she calls him.) It’s also implied throughout the novel that she’s asexual, with her stating at one point:
‘Nor could I tell him I didn’t give a damn about that. Or that I would rather he just go on kissing and holding me like always.’
Here, ‘that’ refers to sex and their kisses have only ever been described as small or on the head, so I read her as asexual, but looking for romantic companionship with Sensei.
Tsukiko’s open honesty makes her a likable character and I enjoyed the way she rationalises and analyses society. But while I sympathised whole-heartedly with her predicament, I didn’t find myself empathising with her very much because the depth of her isolation and emptiness – although they made me ache for her – are something I’ve never experienc. But it’s a testament to Kawakami’s writing that just imagining how she felt gave me pangs of anguish.
Despite their love initially seeming taboo due to the age difference between them (Tsukiko is 37 and Sensei is about 67), Tsukiko’s innocence, Sensei’s tenderness, and their sheer comfort in one another show it to be a pure attraction, transcending the barriers of age and social expectation. In fact, Tsukiko and her sensei’s feelings for one another seems far more natural than Kojima’s feelings for her, who is similar to her in age.
‘A love fated in the stars.’ As I sat there, watching the happy couple seated on the wedding platform and listening to the toast, I remember thinking to myself that there wasn’t a chance in a million that I would ever encounter ‘a love fated in the stars’.
One of my favourite things about this book was its setting: Japan. The novel was originally written in Japanese and it was great to see that so many of the Japanese words for food and other items had been retained. I knew quite a few of them from my time travelling over there and they made me so nostalgic. Tsukiko also describes the sakura (cherry blossom) and momiji (autumn leaves) seasons, and I visited during the latter season, so I could picture it vividly.
On the whole, although the slow and leisurely pace is not something I’m always fond of it worked really well in this novel and allowed me to grow very attached to the two main characters. So when certain events transpired at the end of the novel, although not surprised, I teared up. This book is a powerful look at the very fabric of what makes us human and what makes us all different.