Saturday 19 March 2022


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Things Remembered and Things Forgotten by Kyoko Nakajima (translated by Ginny Takemori and Ian MacDonald)   {Reviewed by STELLA}
What is memory and how does it behave? Or, more accurately, how do we behave when confronted with memories? What we remember could be genuine or fabricated. What we forgot may be purposeful or accidental. Sometimes a happening is just outside our grasp; a thing familiar, hinted at, but not reachable; while at other times what we know has been plainly staring at us, but we have refused to see it. In Kyoko Nakajima’s collection of short stories, memory stands at the centre of her themes. Whether it is a widower getting to know his wife again through her notebooks —  stuffed with recipes, notes-to-self, complaints or pleasures; or a wife navigating her life with her increasingly forgetful husband as he succumbs to dementia; or a niece realising that her taciturn aunt had a secret and pleasurable life, Nakajima’s stories are taut, charming and tantalisingly deceptive, each laced with humour and subtle commentary on Japanese history and culture — societal and familial. What could be taken as quotidian events are surprisingly nuanced. Her concerns with the impact (and what she hints at as a forgetting or pulling away) of the second world war, particularly in the post-war period, are brought to light in several stories, most obviously in the title story, which follows the hardship and decisions made by family during these difficult times, through the eyes of two brothers, and how this has far-reaching consequences well into their future. In 'The Life Story of  Sewing Machine', we follow the glory and fall of an object, the hands which sew upon it and the homes it passes through, ruined, fixed and altered and eventually abandoned or, as it says, left in the dark, to see the light of day again finally at the top of a pile junk at the back of an antique shop. Like many of Nakajima’s stories, she uses a starting point in the present and without warning switches perspective and voice giving a liveliness to the writing as we travel back in time. In 'Kirara’s Paper Plane', a young girl, semi-abandoned as she waits for her mother who is in some sort of trouble, is visited by an older boy who takes her under his wing for a day. A day, because this is all he has. He’s a ghost, one who intermittently finds himself back in his old stomping ground where, after losing his parents in the war, he has struggled to survive on the streets. Ghosts appear in several of the stories, taking in a common element of traditional Japanese fiction, along with reimaginings of traditional folk tales, most markedly in 'The Pet Civet', which folds into its telling the tale of two lovers, one who may have been from the animal spirit realm, as two strangers recount their memories of an aunt. 'When My Wife Was a Shiitake' is charming and thought-provoking, gently touching on prescribed gender roles and fondness that grows through understanding. Kyoko Nakajima’s collection of ten stories, Things Remembered and Things Forgotten is a treat — deceptively sharp, laced with wit, capturing the joy and sadness of remembering and the sometimes necessary desire to forget.

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