People From My Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami — curiously bizarre

People From My Neighbourhood was a perplexing reading experience.

Hiromi Kawakami delivers a collection of 36 stories featuring the people and places of a Tokyo community as seen through the eyes of an unnamed female narrator. This is no cosy, “normal” neighbourhood however — almost every character we meet or every situation described is strange in some degree.

The first story gives a taste of the peculiar atmosphere that pervades the book. The Secret relates an encounter with a small bossy child who lives under a tree. He takes up residence in the narrator’s home, dancing naked around the room after a shower. Why? “It’s a secret,” he tells her.

As the book progresses, we get more into the realm of surrealism and magical realism. In Pigeonitis every resident bar one starts clucking and cooing like a pigeon. Some even take on physical characteristics of these birds, laying eggs and scattering droppings all over the town. Then six months later the contagion disappears as suddenly as it came.

This neighbourhood houses extraordinary facilities like the House of Music (entry permitted only on your birthday) and the House of Sweets made of chocolate and ginger snaps. Its inhabitants are frequently witness to extraordinary events that they seem to take in their stride:

For the first time in ages, we had a no-gravity alert. ‘This is the Disaster Preparedness Office Speaking. We have been informed that a no-gravity event will take place between two and five o’clock this afternoon. Please remain indoors during these hours. If you must go out for any reason, please make sure you are well weighted down. This has been a message from the Disaster Preparedness Office.’

The stories are enticing and intriguing but their brevity left me unsatisfied. Actually the term “short stories” is a bit of a misnomer. Few of them run to more than 2 or 3 pages of widely spaced text and the whole book just about makes it to 121 pages. The publisher Granta, describes them as “palm of the hand’” stories, which is apparently a phrase coined by Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata.

Most of the tales contain a mystery or an unresolved element. They are so short that The publisher describes People from My Neighborhood as “super short ‘palm of the hand’” stories, a phrase coined by Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata about his stories which he said would “virtually fit into the palm of the hand”.

People From My Neighbourhood is clearly the work of a highly imaginative brain but I do wish some of the ideas had been fleshed out more fully. By the time I got to the end I felt I’d been at a banquet comprised entirely of amuse bouche and hors d’ouevres. I’m still wondering when the main course will arrive .

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

23 thoughts on “People From My Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami — curiously bizarre

  • January 13, 2023 at 6:16 pm
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    It sounds a bit like flash fiction or vignettes. Perhaps best read one or two at a time rather than all in one go?

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  • January 12, 2023 at 11:17 am
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    Your review is so thoughtful and thought-provoking that it kind of makes me want to read this unsettling story collection. Sometimes we’re satisfied with a little taste of everything from the buffet, and sometimes we want to settle in with a book and four courses that are going to last a good long time, so maybe if I’m in the right mood…?

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    • January 12, 2023 at 10:23 pm
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      To be fair, a number of people in our book club enjoyed it though we all were at a loss to come up with an idea of what point the author was making

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  • January 12, 2023 at 5:05 am
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    Oooh, this sounds so interesting! BUT I’m hesitating with the lack of resolution – that’s the issue I’ve been having with a *lot* of short story collections lately, seems like it might be the new Thing(TM) for the format

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    • January 12, 2023 at 10:26 pm
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      I can’t find out when these stories were written – I assumed they predated the two novels that brought her international attention but could be completely wrong. To me they felt like exercises.

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  • January 11, 2023 at 4:48 pm
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    I quite like a touch of bizarre and don’t mind very short pieces so may try this one, particularly as I’ve enjoyed Kawakami’s writing before.

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    • January 12, 2023 at 10:36 pm
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      If you send me a message on Twitter, with your address, I’ll pop it into the post for you. There’s nowhere around here that it would be worth donating it to so it would just end up being recycled by them and I hate waste.

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    • January 13, 2023 at 9:50 pm
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      Definitely undercooked (what a good expression!). They felt like exercises to me – some good ideas but never got fully explored

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  • January 11, 2023 at 3:46 pm
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    I’m currently reading The Briefcase by Kawakami for the Japanese Literature Challenge and am really enjoying it – my first experience of this author.

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    • January 13, 2023 at 9:50 pm
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      I suspect this was just the wrong choice of book and her full-length work will be more rewarding

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  • January 11, 2023 at 10:50 am
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    I really don’t mind tales so short they’d fit into the palm of my hand, and so surreal that they’d linger in the mind – after all I quite enjoyed Felix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines (or possibly ‘news in three lines’: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-feneon) – but what would bother me would be the big white spaces between lines which would make me feel short-changed.

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    • January 13, 2023 at 9:52 pm
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      To be fair we didn’t get big white spaces between lines but the dimensions of the book (height and width) were quite small – would easily fit into a jacket pocket. We had an even worse example of poor value at Christmas when I bought my husband a set of memoirs by Alan Benett – cost £7 roughly and he read it in an hour

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  • January 11, 2023 at 9:59 am
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    At first I thought I would quite like to read this, but I can’t cope with “bizarre” at the moment… life is too bizarre in itself. But thank you, a thoughtful review.

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    • January 13, 2023 at 9:52 pm
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      I can handle bizarre if there is a point to it but if there was one in this book I was baffled by what it could be

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  • January 11, 2023 at 8:34 am
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    I’m not good at bizarre in any case, but this sounds a curiously unsatisfying collection. I’ll pass, I think.

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    • January 13, 2023 at 9:53 pm
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      You won’t feel you are missing out on anything

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  • January 11, 2023 at 12:54 am
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    I wish the Disaster Preparedness Office had warned me before I read these stories of the no-gravity event they would turn out to be. Although to be fair, there are some wonderful flights of imagination – if only they had been developed a little more.

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    • January 13, 2023 at 9:54 pm
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      I could have done with that warning too! I would get to the end of each one and think “is that it???”

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  • January 10, 2023 at 9:57 pm
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    Hello, happy New Year; perhaps the main course will arrive in her next book or not; and maybe we’re to remember that “People from my Neighborhood” could be just about anyone’s neighbor with ordinary lives and yet some of these described characters are nothing but ordinary and I am thinking of that film ‘Ordinary People’ where their lives were more challenging and complicated. I don’t think that I would want to read this book. Thank you for sharing.

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    • January 13, 2023 at 9:54 pm
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      I’m not sure I would want to encounter some of her neighbours

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