Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Allison Markin Powell (Portobello Books, August 2013)
Tsukiko is in her late 30s and living alone when one night she happens to meet one of her former high school teachers, ‘Sensei’, in a bar. He is at least thirty years her senior, retired and, she presumes, a widower. After this initial encounter, the pair continue to meet occasionally to share food and drink sake, and as the seasons pass – from spring cherry blossom to autumnal mushrooms – Tsukiko and Sensei come to develop a hesitant intimacy which tilts awkwardly and poignantly into love. Perfectly constructed, funny, and moving, Strange Weather in Tokyo is a tale of modern Japan and old-fashioned romance.
Despite having stacks of books I still haven’t read yet, I’m always on the look out for something new with a Japan connection, and so I was pleased to be contacted by Portobello Books asking if I would read and review Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (川上 弘美). This is the British publication debut for Kawakami, who is one of Japan’s most critically acclaimed and best-selling novelists, and Strange Weather in Tokyo has been shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2013. The novel, known as Sensei no kaban (センセイの鞄 / The Teacher’s Briefcase) in Japanese was published in Japan in 2000 and in America under the title The Briefcase in 2012. The story was also dramatised in Japan in 2003 (Drama Wiki).
I hadn’t heard of Kawakami before, but I was incredibly impressed with this book and would like to check out her other work now. I have to also give great credit to Allison Markin Powell who translated the text from its original Japanese. Of course, I haven’t read the original, but given how quirky and dreamlike the narrative is, I can only imagine it wasn’t easy to translate!
As the summary above says, this is the story of Tsukiko who happens to meet up with her old high school teacher, known simply as ‘Sensei’ throughout most of the book. The story is a little dark, and drifts far away from reality at times, but also shows quite a realistic picture of the life of a single 30-something woman in Tokyo. There are lovely descriptions of seasonal aspects of Japan, such as the sound of cicadas in summer, and also delicious descriptions of food and drink which really make you feel like you’re sitting in the bar with Tsukiko and Sensei.
Strange Weather in Tokyo is a slightly mysterious story, and utterly compelling. Once I had begun reading, I didn’t want to put it down at all. The story is somehow gentle and quite peaceful, and I felt quite relaxed while reading it (although I have to say I did have some odd dreams when I read it straight before bed!).
I’d highly recommend Strange Weather in Tokyo to anyone, whether you have an interest in Japan or not. This is contemporary fiction at its very best.