I didn’t exactly chose to read the novella Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto because of the cover, more because of the intriguing title, and the author’s even more intriguing name, ‘Banana’.
The story’s narrator, Mikage Sakurai, loves kitchens and early in the book, gets the opportunity to make a character judgement about another character based on their kitchen. (Hmm, what does my kitchen say about me? A slightly dirty oven, a crumby toaster and an enormous pantry filled with delicious things to eat are your clues to my personality – and weight).
When Mikage’s grandmother dies, she is left without any family. Yuichi Tanabe, who Mikage barely knows, offers her a home with him and his mother. Mikage’s grandmother was a customer of the florist where Yuichi works and was as heartbroken as Mikage when her grandmother died.
Strangely enough, Yuichi’s mother Eriko, used to be his father. This is probably worthy of a story on its own, but is treated very matter-of-factly in this novel and is really only background information.
Mikage falls in love with Yuichi’s spacious and elegant apartment, which has a beautiful kitchen, containing, amongst other things, a “delightful German-made vegetable peeler-a peeler to make even the laziest grandmother enjoy slip, slipping those skins off.”
When Eriko is killed by a jealous lover, Yuichi and Mikage reconnect over food. (Writing this review makes me realise that the whole story is actually about food and tragedy, not the connection between people and the contents of their cutlery drawers…)
The edition of Kitchen I read was translated from Japanese by Megan Backus. I struggled to identify with the characters and the story, which felt sparse and superficial, particularly the conversations between Mikage and Yuichi. Despite this, the actual sentences, read individually, are beautiful and contain messages which are worth thinking about.
The insight into Japanese culture was interesting to me. The reference to the vegetable peeler and the lazy grandmother make me wonder if a grandmother’s role in Japan is to work for her (younger) family members. Mikage doesn’t seem to consider it unusual that Yuichi has a transgender mother or that Yuichi and Eriko invite her to live with them on such a flimsy connection, but I have to admit, all of these situations seem unusual to me.
Anyway, Kitchen is so short that even though I didn’t particularly like the sparseness of the story, I didn’t feel as if I had been hard done by. The story and the characters were interesting and unusual, and I expect that people much cleverer than me like this book a lot.