Happy Friday book ninjas! The weekend has arrived, which means that I will be reading a lot and annoying kitties when I’m not. It all sounds quite exciting. As I sat down to write this post, I mentally created a tiny TBR for the weekend and I found myself craving stories that have a strong emphasis on family, particularly family values. Chalk it up to the celebration of my parents’ 32nd wedding anniversary, or maybe the emotionally intimate post I wrote a couple of days ago—whatever the reason, I’m feeling quite sentimental as of late. In honour of this warm and fuzzy feeling, I have decided to share a couple of my favourite novels that revolve around family.
What is family? What does family mean to you? What can a family story do for the reader?
Well, I have two titles from my favoured Asian literature genre that examine these questions in narratives that are equal parts kind and sentimental, touching and tragic, comical and real. Actually, in an effort to spread my passion for this genre, I have decided that I’m going to be writing up some gibberish like this twice a month, where I shall bring to all of you stories about family and friendship. “Why?” you ask? It’s simple, homie: because these stories are fantastic and relatable by all sorts of folks. Everyone needs a dose of inspiration every once in a blue moon, no?
This week I will be focusing on novels from Japan with two of my utmost favourite authors in this whole wide world: Yoko Ogawa and Banana Yoshimoto. These two ladies have a natural sophistication in their prose that is absolutely enchanting; it’s beautifully provocative, moving, and contemplative.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Originally written in 1988, Kitchen is Yoshimoto’s English-language debut story that is all about mothers, love, loss, and finding oneself. The tale is about a young girl named Mikage, who after being orphaned was raised by her grandmother. When her grandmother passes away, Mikage feels a gut-wrenching grief that takes her on a small journey with her friend Yoichi and his mum (who was once his pa), Eriko. Together they form a makeshift household where they will each learn what it means to be a part of something intimate, something sort of like a family.
“When my grandmother died the other day, I was taken by surprise. My family had steadily decreased one by one as the years went by, but when it suddenly dawned on me that I was all alone, everything before my eyes seemed false. The fact that time continued to pass in the usual way in this apartment where I grew up, even though now I was here all alone, amazed me. It was total science-fiction. The blackness of the cosmos.”
When I read this, it was for a Japanese literature course at the uni. Little did I realize that this one novel would introduce me to an author who has a magical way of spinning words into a woven tapestries of values, life lessons, and what it means to be a human in a not so humane world. While bittersweet, Kitchen is such an elegant piece of literature that I feel everyone should experience at least once, more so if you have encountered the shadows of loss. It will touch you and warm you down to the soul.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
Yoko Ogawa paints a poignant portrait of a brilliant math professor who, after a tragic head injury, lives with only eight minutes of short-term memory. A young woman, a housekeeper, is hired to care for him and she brings along her ten-year old son. As these three individuals spend their days together—a young boy passionate for baseball, a lady who is an independent single mother, and an elderly man struggling with being tethered to his past—an amazingly beautiful yet strange relationship begins to blossom between them. With the complex equations and lovely numbers that linger in his mind, the trio are brought profoundly closer to one another, even in the midst of the professor’s fading memory.
“Among the many things that made the Professor an excellent teacher was the fact that he wasn’t afraid to say ‘we don’t know.’ For the Professor, there was no shame in admitting you didn’t have the answer, it was a necessary step toward the truth. It was as important to teach us about the unknown or the unknowable as it was to teach us what had already been safely proven.”
This novel is exquisitely crafted from the first page to the very last words. It is a masterpiece with its exploration of empathy, companionship, and the lonely corners of a crumbling mind. As a person who struggles with an illness that will eventually take my mind from me, this novel resonated so alarmingly close to home: being utterly alone in the midst of an unfamiliarly accustomed surrounding. Ogawa uses simplistically lovely words to share a bond between three people that is so strong and so relevant, it has the power to help even those who are construed as entirely destitute. The most heart-touching facet of this novel is that it shows us that family is not created by blood alone, but with the dinners you share, the songs you sing, the ball that you throw back and forth. Family is created by the emotions and effort you put into one other, thus creating a tie that’s sincere and gentle; unbreakable.
I rarely find myself tearing up while I read books. I can feel sympathy and grief, but to be moved to actual liquid flowing out of my eyes and down my face, well it’s wholly uncommon with me as a reader. Yet, these two titles not only brought me to tears with their expressive power, but also with how much of myself I could see in the characters and the tales told. I could not recommend them enough.
With that, I bid you all a lovely weekend ahead. Until next time,