Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Megan Backus, Washington Square Press, 1994.
Reviewing books that have been translated is always difficult because it is hard to know if anything has been 'lost' in the translation. Unfortunately, reading Kitchen, I often did feel lost.
The small novel begins with the lines; "the place I like best in the world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it's a kitchen, if it's a place where they make food, it's fine with me". For the full first two pages, the narrator continues to discuss her love for kitchens. You may wonder what I expected, given the title of the novel, but it was not this simplistic, childlike writing style. Many readers have praised Yoshimoto's writing and Kitchen has received many positive reviews in both the Western and Japanese media. Certain parts of the novel do have a poetic quality to them. But I was let down by the novel as a whole.
At first I attributed the juvenile voice of the main character to a stylistic device. I believed the narrator was a young girl, therefore the story was being told from her perspective. Then I realized that the character was a University student. Despite tackling some morbid and serious subjects, the novel carried on in this exuberant and airy style. The main character is left alone after the death of her grandmother and caregiver. She is approached by an acquaintance of her grandmother, a boy close to her age, who asks her to come and live with him and his mother. Even though she has just met this boy she agrees, and the novel follows the development of their relationship.
The book was not unpleasant or completely unenjoyable. it does have a certain charm to it. But given the accolades it had received, including two of Japan's most respected literary awards, the writing style was unexpected. This might sound harsh, but it is the type of book best read on the beach in the summer, or with a slight head cold. The light style and odd plot work better when you are not overly analytical of what you are reading.