Hitomi, I . . . I’m not very good at this, I’m sorry, Takeo said softly.
Not good at what?
Everything and nothing.
That’s not true. I’m the one who’s no good at this.
Really? I mean, Takeo said, looking me straight in the eyes for a change. You’re not one for, for getting through life either?
Hiromi Kawakami’s “The Nakano Thrift Shop” is a cryptic character study of the people who inhabit a small thrift shop in Japan. Hitomi, Takeo, Masayo, and Mr. Nakano are quirky, enigmatic treasures just like those found in the shop they operate. Each has a more complicated back story than is visible at first glance.
“These things are old, so you can’t let them collect dust, Mr. Nakano often said. Because they are old, they must be immaculate. But not too perfect. It’s a fine line, a fine line, he would say, chuckling as he passed the duster over everything.”
The characters, too, are imperfect; their flaws are charming, their awkwardness endearing.
Each of the main characters faces romantic complications, and each appears to be ill-equipped to navigate the intricacies of love and sex. For Hitomi, a relatively inexperienced girl who is captivated by her coworker Takeo, love is ultimately uncharted and unknowable.
“This was what made love so difficult. Or rather, the difficult thing was first determining whether or not love was what I wanted.”
Masayo, sister of the shop’s proprietor who is meant to be sage and sensible, herself struggles with a complicated relationship, ultimately letting her lover slip away.
“When you get old and far-sighted, you can’t look your sweetheart in the eye from close up. You need a little distance, so that you can focus on each other. So that your faces don’t look blurry–anyway, you need a little distance.”
I found interesting the decision to present some dialogue within quotation marks and some without. Because this is a work in translation, I don’t know if this inconsistency was a translation issue or an intentional choice. If intentional, what does it signify, this punctuation of some but not all dialogue? This idiosyncrasy is particularly notable because so much of the story is made up of brief snippets of speech. No character speaks at great length and rarely do any speak with particular clarity. Is the presence or absence of quotation marks, therefore, meant to signal importance? To question veracity? Or is it simply an enigmatic trait parallel to those the characters possess?
“The Nakano Thrift Shop” is sweet but not saccharine. The characters are un-extraordinary and irresistible. Kawakami’s writing (and the translation of Allison Markin Powell) is a pleasure-filled puzzle – one in which the solution is beside the point. A true delight.
Thank you to Europa Editions for the complimentary review copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.
“The Nakano Thrift Shop” is released in the United States on June 6, 2017.