Ian Mond Reviews People from My Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami
People from My Neighbourhood, Hiromi Kawakami (Granta Books 978-1-84627-699-6, £7.99, 121pp, tp) August 2020; as People from My Neighborhood (Soft Skull 978-1-59376-711-2, $15.95, 176pp, tp) November 2021.
Hiro Kawakami’s new collection, People from My Neighborhood, isn’t my first exposure to her work. Several years back, I read Kawakami’s Akutagawa Prize-winning collection Record of a Night Too Brief. The three novelettes that comprise that book introduced me to Kawakami’s appreciation for the absurd, but also her wonderfully askew sense of humour. I meant to pick up more of Kawakami’s work (especially her short novel Strange Weather in Tokyo) but never got around to it. So thank you to Soft Skull (and Granta in the UK) for forcing my hand by releasing People from My Neighborhood.
Translated from the Japanese by Ted Goossen, the 36 vignettes that make up the collection are all told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who chronicles the strange goings-on in her community. The collection begins with “The Secret”, where our narrator comes across a child lying underneath a white cloth beside a zelkova tree. “The child glared up at me, ‘What’s the big idea?’ It had narrow eyes but thick eyebrows. I couldn’t tell if it was a girl or a boy.” Our narrator – who suspects the child is not human – takes it home, and for the next 30 years, they live together: “it was an unexpectedly good listener. It would listen to my tales of woe – my failures at work, my diffident lover – with great sympathy as I spoke.”
“The Secret” is one of the few instances where we get an insight into the narrator’s life. For the most part, these surreal stories, where a decade can sweep by in a single sentence, are the narrator’s observations of the people she encounters and the significant events that have shaped her neighborhood. As such, we meet the narrator’s unruly best friend Kanae, and Kanae’s older sister who possesses the “ability to speak in the voices of the dead”; and the young man who lives in the gazebo and communicates using three phrases (“‘Shall I sign here?’ ‘Final balance, please’ and ‘It’s raining hard”’); and the Doctor who believes that some people are hatched from eggs; and Grandpa Shadows, named as such because “he had two shadows. One shadow was docile and submissive, the other rebellious.” In turn, we also learn about the calamitous day when the neighborhood was faced with a no-gravity alert (“If you must go out for any reason, please make sure you are weighted down”) and the spiteful, secret war between a young girl who has the power to falsify the neighborhood’s memories and the one person who always remembers the truth; and the time when pigeonitis swept through the community:
The biggest problem with pigeonitis was that your mind became pigeon-like. It was bad enough that you laid eggs one after another, scattered your droppings everywhere, and chased after insects; what caused even more trouble was your pattern of thought.
With its TARDIS-like quality (the book is barely the length of a novella, and yet the world within is so vibrant and capacious) People from My Neighborhood delivers a heartfelt, beautiful, dreamlike rendition of urban life that is both glorious on its own merits and will emotionally resonate with those of us who, due to the pandemic, have been required to stay at home, kept at arms lengths from our family, friends, and community.
This review and more like it in the November 2021 issue of Locus.
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