book review | record of a night too brief and people from my neighbourhood by hiromi kawakami

Hiromi Kawakami’s shorter fiction is just as promising as her long-form works. Hallucinatory, and simultaneously heart-breaking and tongue-in-cheek, both collections are expertly translated by Ted Goossen and Lucy North (Neighbourhood and Record, respectively).

Cover for Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami. Dark blue background covered in pinkish mushrooms with title in light blue.

In the titular novella in Record of a Night Too Brief, Kawakami chronicles the life cycle of a woman in a world where night appears endless. Broken into twenty smaller sections, the narrative alternates between random moments in the narrator’s life and her relationship with her girlfriend. In one section, the two dance together, only for the narrator to flinch back in horror when she realises there are mushrooms growing from her girlfriend’s neck. As quickly as she moves away, she comes back in again, continuing this dance even though her girlfriend is aware of the horror the narrator feels at her changing body. The woman’s disgust deepens when she realises the mushrooms are growing on her, too; still, they continue to dance.

Kawakami uses surrealism to show a sharp truth behind traumatic change and ageing: that it is horrifying to see the person you love transform, only to realise you are victim to the same process. And still, love persists, even when your partner becomes unrecognisable. Trauma is central to the narrative of this story; our desire for things to return to ‘normal’ after a traumatic event is seen when the girlfriend shatters, and after growing her girlfriend from her body again, the narrator feels a part of the girlfriend is missing. In response, the girlfriend cuts a part of the narrator loose, growing her own version of her. This traumatic severing and expectation of perfection repeats endlessly, even after the narrator accepts the changes in her girlfriend. Trauma persists. The feeling that our partners want a specific version of us lingers, years after we appear to have accepted change.

Their narrative ends. The narrator and her girlfriend spend the last moments of their existence together, as night moves into day. And with the day, everyone falls asleep, exhausted; we believe their existence is wasted, as they fall asleep the moment they reach their destination, missing what they have spent their life waiting for. Kawakami muses on the human experience, how constant our desire is for the next best thing, when we should focus on the smaller things that make life worth living, instead of constantly anticipating an inevitable end.

Cover for People From My Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami. The background is light pink, with an off-centre model village home with a figure riding a bike, a dog, a business man, and a blossom tree.

In Kawakami’s collection of flash fiction, People From My Neighbourhood, she continues her probing of the human experience by using short-form stories to explore a wide cast of characters. An unnamed narrator chronicles the lives and livelihoods of those in their neighbourhood. In ‘Brains’, the narrator visits her friend Kanae’s house to find that Kanae’s older sister—both key players in the narrative of this neighbourhood and the wider world—is dissecting Kanae’s dolls, looking at their brains. It is a surreal and sudden acceleration of the lingering unease of the previous stories and sets the tone for the rest of the collection.

This is a collection that can be read slowly, savoured in small bursts, keeping characters contained within little narratives. Each story has its own distinctive, uncanny narrative. Or the collection can be binge read, so that you can have a firmer grasp on character and create your own impression of the wider world outside of the microcosm of the neighbourhood. Contradictory and non-linear, you can never trust the unreal-reality Kawakami creates through the stories. What you can trust with Kawakami is the authenticity of the emotions of those in her stories, unpredictable and uncannily human in their responses to surreal experience. The same characters live many different lives and deaths, and yet all of these existences come to naturally coexist in the strange little world Kawakami creates.

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3 thoughts on “book review | record of a night too brief and people from my neighbourhood by hiromi kawakami

  1. Pingback: thoughts on | the doll’s alphabet by camilla grudova – seasonsofwords

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