Kyoko Nakajima’s short story collection ‘Things Remembered and Things Forgotten’ — which examines the lives of people unconsciously haunted by fragmented memories of war and occupation, fading traditions, lost buildings and the spirits of their recent past — is published by Sort Of Books. Nick Bradley reviews.
When I saw that Kyoko Nakajima was releasing a short story collection in English, I jumped at the chance to review it. Now, having read her new collection, translated beautifully into English by Ginny Tapley Takemori (you’ll know her work from Convenience Store Woman) and Ian McCullough MacDonald, I am very pleased. I’m pleased that readers will have more of a chance to experience her quiet brilliance in English.
Some readers might already be familiar with Kyoko Nakajima – Darf Publishers released her novel The Little House in 2019. It was greeted with praise, along with murmured comparisons to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day, in terms of similar subject matter and the themes. In Japan, Nakajima won the Naoki Prize in 2010 for Chiisai ouchi (the original Japanese title for The Little House), and it was subsequently adapted into a film.
Now, English-speaking readers will be treated to a solid collection of ten short stories in Things Remembered and Things Forgotten, available from Sort Of Books. The stories are all disparate, but (as the title hints) they’re tied together through the common themes of remembrance and forgetting. The stories all grapple with the past and the present, the known and the unknowable, the real and the unreal.
Take, for example, the beautiful tale ‘The Life Story of a Sewing Machine’ – we meet the sewing machine in the present, run down and broken, missing its ‘heart’. We then travel back in time, tracing the long life of the machine – its various owners and users – in the manner of an it-narrative (which follows the life of an inanimate object). Nakajima is perhaps here evoking that famously difficult-to-grasp Japanese concept of mono no aware (the pathos of things), whereby we feel a sadness or a sense of nostalgia for the long life and slow decay of an object, here, a machine that was built to mend things slowly coming to the end of its own life.
This is not in-your-face writing – it is quieter, subtler, understated. You’ll find emotion creeping over you suddenly and unexpectedly, like in the story ‘Global Positioning System,’ where you might be wondering how two seemingly disparate storylines – one involving a pair of young children at a fairground, and the other an elderly man suffering from dementia – are going to tie together. And then, before you even realize, they have, and the story is ended. Wondrously.
You might even find yourself having to go back and reread several pages, because Nakajima has done something so skilfully and subtly that a narrative twist has come out of nowhere and surprised you, and you’re not sure how she did it, as it does in the story ‘Childhood Friends’. In the interest of not giving away spoilers, I shan’t go into details, but needless to say it’s a story you’ll remember.
As with all short story collections, there are likely going to be stories you love, and stories you don’t love so much. The final story ‘The Last Obon’ – a family affair with too many characters and not enough payoff – was not quite to my tastes. Overall in the collection, there was a slight tendency towards the oneiric, or ghosts, to explain away events in stories. But when these elements did work, they worked perfectly.
There are moments in this collection I’ll always remember, and scenes and feelings I’ll never forget. I shall be following Kyoko Nakajima’s future work eagerly.
Translated by Ian McCullough MacDonald and Ginny Tapley Takemori, and published by Sort Of Books, ‘Things Remembered and Things Forgotten’ is out now, available here (£9.99).
Nick Bradley is the author of ‘The Cat and The City’, which follows the adventures of a stray cat in Tokyo. It was a BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick, longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award 2021, and is currently being translated into over 10 languages. He lives in Norwich with his cat, Pansy.