Strangers by Taichi Yamada
Random encounters with books are one of the joys of reading, but the trouble with stumbling across titles online is that I so often forget where I saw them – “Strangers” being a case in point! I know I read about this fairly recently, and I managed to snag a copy from a swapping site – but if it was your blog I found it on, thank you!
Yamada is an author new to me, and since the Japanese writing I’ve read has mostly been from the early to mid 20th century, I was keen to explore further; particularly as what I read about “Strangers” was intriguing and suggestive.
The story is narrated by Harada; a middle-aged, divorced scriptwriter, his life seems to be plodding on and going nowhere. Work is drying up a little, the separation from his wife was instigated by him as they were growing apart, and he’s reduced to living out of his office in a Tokyo highrise block. As his birthday approaches, he pays a visit to Asakusa, the downtown area he grew up in. Orphaned at a young age, it comes as something of a shock to Harada when he stumbles across a couple who are the perfect replica of his parents as he last remembered them. But who are they? It’s not possible that they really are his mother and father, as they haven’t aged, but all the evidence points to the contrary.
Harada’s health begins to decline and his grasp on reality slips; as things spiral out of control, it seems that his only hope is with his elusive neighbour Kei, a strange women with whom he’s begun to strike up a relationship. But Kei has her secrets too, and nothing is quite what it seems…
I’d be lying if I said this book didn’t affect me deeply, because it did; possibly because of my personal circumstances recently, or possibly just because it’s a powerful story and one that touches the human condition. Nevertheless, “Strangers” is one of the most moving works I’ve read in a long time, and the sections where Harada was with his erstwhile/pseudo parents were unbearably poignant. He’s obviously needy, having lost his parents so young, and to see him rediscovering them and spending time with them is beautiful and sad at the same time. But the book is more than just this; it’s actually quite scary and unsettling, and the things going on around Harada are obviously affecting him physically, something he himself can’t see.
To say much more would risk taking away the surprise element in this book, and it’s wonderfully clever in the way that it’s written and how it wrong-foots you all the time. Tokyo old and new comes to life here, and the atmosphere of isolation in the highrise is brilliantly conveyed. There’s a formality in the writing which might be down to the translation but also might be the author conveying part of Harada’s character or the Japanese way of life. And if nothing else it explores the relationship between parents and children quite superbly.
In the end, nothing in “Strangers” is quite what it seems, which makes it a gripping read from start to finish (and I did find it hard to put down). It’s an intelligent, absorbing and wonderful book that really will haunt you for a long time afterwards – highly recommended!