Reviews

Charming read, clumsy conclusion

Hiromi Kawakami is known for her offbeat novels, including The Ten Loves Of Mr Nishino, about a hopeless romantic and his various entanglements.
Hiromi Kawakami is known for her offbeat novels, including The Ten Loves Of Mr Nishino, about a hopeless romantic and his various entanglements.

FICTION

THE TEN LOVES OF MR NISHINO

By Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Allison Markin Powell

Granta Books/195 pages/$21.95/ Books Kinokuniya

3 stars

Hiromi Kawakami's offbeat novels - most famously Strange Weather In Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop - have enthralled Japanese readers for years. Only recently has she gained an international following as more of them have been translated into English.

Joining that number some 15 years after it was first published is The Ten Loves Of Mr Nishino - an airy novel about a hopeless romantic and his various entanglements.

Each of the novel's 10 stories is narrated by one of Nishino's ex-lovers - who range from a colleague to a lady who fancies her cat, Maow, more than she does him.

Nishino is an unlikely Casanova, a man-child who suckles his sister's breasts and crawls into sewer pipes for fun. What exactly do his partners see in him? Why does he keep cheating on the women he loves? Does he really want to sleep with his sister? He is a man of mystery, even to himself.

Fans of Kawakami's quirky style (which has similarities with Japanese writer Banana Yoshimoto's) will delight in her fine, thoughtful writing, deftly translated into English by Allison Markin Powell: "Hearing the sound of my cry, both Nishino and the woman slowly turned their heads. Their motions were perfectly in sync. It was as if a single puppet master were manipulating the movements of two dolls."

Other passages have a touch of whimsy about them.

"I wish I were Maow," Nishino tells Eriko, the cat lady. "Then you would give me sardines or mackerel every day."

Later, he tells Ai, a university student: "In addition to the fact that you are more mature than any grown woman, you're also purer than any chaste young girl."

This book is a breezy read, but ultimately lacks the magic of Strange Weather In Tokyo (2001; translated to English in 2012), Kawakami's surprisingly relatable story about a woman who falls in love with her former high-school teacher.

While Nishino may be irresistible to the women in the story, the reader is not made to feel much for him. The book also ends with a series of rhetorical questions, which feel like a clumsy attempt at rounding it off.

Rather like Nishino himself, this novel about love and its pathetic discontents is a charming and amusing read - one which may leave the reader somewhat unsatisfied.

If you like this, read: The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Allison Markin Powell (Granta Books, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), a story revolving around a thrift store owned by an enigmatic ladies' man.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2019, with the headline 'Charming read, clumsy conclusion'. Print Edition | Subscribe