Kitchen is the novella that made Banana Yoshimoto an overnight sensation in Japan in her twenties and eventually won her accolades internationally. It is a spare, lovely and quirky pair of stories about death and loss that turn extreme pain and depression to beauty and a kind of hopeful resignation. The characters in Kitchen speak in a dialogue that seems too direct and too perfectly crafted to be real conversation. But it works to carry the book along and reveal the inner life of Mikage, who has become an orphan overnight, Yuichi, who rescues her and Eriko, the transgender whirlwind who is Yuichi’s father/mother and Mikage’s salvation.
The unanticipated and the violent deaths in Kitchen and its companion story Moonlight Shadow engage the youthful protagonists in self-reflection and inspire a slightly detached chronicle of mundane activities and the ways they are colored by pain. Existential questions of profound loneliness are contemplated over meals, chance encounters and a restless mobility. Those in mourning change houses, take up running, escape on vacations, travel for work—everything is in motion around the emptiness of being left behind. Quietly, they discover new loves and insightful strangers who point the way forward. Trust in casual acquaintances and complete strangers is taken for granted in ways that are startling to contemplate—behavior that seems unremarkable to these Tokyo citizens might get you a nasty comeuppance and some lurid headlines in Manhattan.
But the prose is lucid and the calm examination of conduct in an effort to find meaning leads to awareness and acceptance. Yoshimoto’s characters are stoic and philosophical—maybe a legacy from the philosopher father she cites as an influence on her thinking. Truman Capote is another influence and that is easy to see. Capote strung details like exquisite beads on a wire to catch your eye and hold your attention. Yoshimoto mixes the rich flavors of a perfectly cooked katsudon, a deep-fried pork dish served over rice, with the comforting late-night hum of a refrigerator and hallucinogenic, clairvoyant dreams to concoct small, satisfying tales that treat death as a primer to teach us how—and why—to live.
Kitchen (A Black cat book) Banana Yoshimoto Washington SquarePress 1994