A Review of People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Ted Goossen
People from My Neighborhood
by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Ted Goossen
New York: Soft Skull Press, 2021.
The story collection People from My Neighborhood by Japanese writer Hiromi Kawakami, and translated into English by Ted Goossen, is a delightful inventory of a remembered town, graced with humor, nostalgia, and enigmatic leaps into (or from) the imagination. These thirty-six linked stories, most no longer than three or four pages, create an unexpected mosaic of this community: the odd individuals peopling the neighborhood, the often-strange turns in their days, and ultimately, the rise and fall of their fates. In this town lives a man with two shadows, a taxi driver who shuttles around ghosts, and two rival Yokos whose anger once started a stationery shop fire. On another block live family members who returned from America with different names, an elderly princess who seems to despise local children, and a boy whose family is so poor he’s sent via lottery to other neighbors’ homes for three weeks at a time.
A female narrator anchors these overlapping narratives, both sketching her school-age memories (some as early as fourth grade) and revealing, often in a deft shift near a story’s end, the characters’ futures. Kanae, the primary narrator’s bitchy best friend, and Kanae’s sister (only ever identified as such) feature in a number of stories, with Kanae’s sister’s fate as a famous medium channeling a dead comedian noted several times. Other recurring characters are the town’s self-proclaimed “principal” of the dog park, the demon-faced owner of Love bar who sings karaoke to herself each night, and “the old chicken farmer” (64) upholding agricultural tradition against so many youth taking white-collar jobs in Tokyo. Many of these characters are legendary, or come across that way through the narration; the narrator uses a lightness that in effect is rooting for these people and draws the reader in. Also, there’s a great sense of wonder about the neighbors both as children and especially as adults — who they become, what they become famous for, what their dreams do or don’t add up to.
While People from My Neighborhood focuses on so many individuals, it’s also a town inventory for aspects beyond population. Several stories spotlight buildings or landmarks in the neighborhood, including a school made of shortbread and candy, the mysterious Music House that only allows visitors on their birthdays, and the square houses outside town that expand based on the purity of inhabitants’ emotions. These are buildings anyone in the neighborhood would know, part of the town’s communal lexicon, and the narrator, as tour guide, gives readers access to this knowledge, its lore. The book also inventories local rituals, festivals, and several historic events: the Sand Festival and the god who makes an appearance; the annual sports day, this time held inexplicably inside a bank; and the afternoon when gravity stopped working, putting the town in lockdown for several hours.
Throughout the book, Kawakami’s imagination is playful, allowing for surreal and magical moments, and yet — even in this landscape where anything feels possible — the collection remains cohesive. Even the strangest or most unexpected details feel part of this place, the neighborhood. One of Kawakami’s major achievements with the book is creating a container that holds it all. She builds cohesion not only through the town’s geography, or the repetition of characters among stories, but through a tone that feels glossed with one part nostalgia and an equal part humor. You get the sense of stories filtered through memory, told from the vantage of a life now lived, someone looking with fondness but still aware of both absurdity and the weight of each character’s ultimate transformation.
Cohesion is also created through the communal nature of the narration. While the female narrator is the most pervasive voice, some stories are told in a collective voice, encompassing the town and sometimes highlighting a subset within the community (“us girls,” for example). The stories are also shaped by a ton of reported speech and rumor, one of the major currencies of a small neighborhood. Read the following examples as the buzz from a game of telephone:
“We heard from people who lived in the neighborhood next to ours ...”(85). “It was Hachiro who told me Grandpa Shadows had once been a baron ...” (52). “That, at least, is what I was told by one of the neighborhood women ...” (36). “There was a rumor that Kiyoshi grew up to be a very handsome man ... but I have no idea whether that rumor was true or not” (25). “He confided to me that the dog school principal and Michio had hatched from eggs ...” (110). “Our teacher said it was chicken pox, but years later Kiyoshi told me their secret ...” (81).
The gossip has an aliveness but also an interesting uncertainty. It’s not that the book asks readers to puzzle out a truth, but instead to engage with the possibility that neighbors’ differing perceptions shape and reshape these tales, not to mention the primary narrator herself adding at times a nostalgic glow.
I also admire the humor throughout the collection. Some last lines hit with the force of a punch line. Similarly, sometimes the meaning of a story’s title is withheld until the final sentences, an unusual yet effective strategy. This structuring may contribute to the feeling that these short pieces could stand on their own. Each is a small tale beautifully rendered. Collectively, though, they provide a compelling and mysterious guide for a neighborhood that was.
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