Kitchen, the English-language debut of Japanese writer Banana Yoshimoto, like the most of the books I buy these days (perpetually skint student that I am) was discovered in a charity shop. I picked it up because it looked to be a very interesting character study by a writer from a culture I was very interested in and keen to learn more about. And anyway, it was only a quid, so why not? I went in with pretty much zero expectations, and I found the results very pleasant indeed. Kitchen is a lovely little book, a Tokyo-based romance built around a number of beautifully realised characters, which manages to convey a genuine sense of hope despite the rather dark tinge to the narrative.
The novel deals with the life of a young woman Mikage, who has the mother of all tragic backstories – orphaned at a young age and raised by her grandparents, the novel opens with Mikage still mourning the death of her grandmother, effectively orphaned twice over. As the title suggests, she finds solace in her grandmother’s kitchen, which offers a familiar and comforting setting in contrast to the instability of her life. In her own words, “Now only the kitchen and I are left. It’s just a little nicer than being all alone.” But when her finances force her to move in with her friend Yuichi and his glamorous and free-spirited mother, Eriko, things start looking up for her. From there Yoshimoto creates a rather nice little family drama-cum-love story, which effectively wends its way through various comic set pieces and soap opera histrionics to a touching and heartfelt conclusion.
Yoshimoto displays a genuine skill at creating well-rounded and interesting characters, even if her dialogue does clunk a fair bit (although this could simply be the result of translation– at one point a character sardonically remarks that a particularly corny speech sounds “like it was translated from the English”). Overall, Kitchen is a wonderful little story, melancholy without being bleak, rendered in subtly emotional, elegant prose.