“I thought about how what I felt for him now and what he felt for me at that moment must be totally and completely out of sync. Trying to imagine it made me dizzy.”

Hiromi Kawakami has an almost uncanny gift when it comes to capturing on the page the most ordinary thoughts and moments of everyday life. Whereas Strange Weather in Tokyo centred around a woman’s evenings at a bar, omitting mentions of her day job, The Nakano Thrift Shop is all about our protagonist’s job. We don’t know much about Hitomi other than that she is employed at the Nakano Thrift shop. This slight novel portrays this particular time in her life, without providing Hitomi or the other characters’ much of a background. This may as well annoy some readers but I found that it made Hitomi’s time at the Nakano shop all the more immersive.

“Ours was a strange world, in which whatever was new and neat and tidy diminished in value.”

In her new job, Hitomi meets plenty of interesting, eccentric, if not downright weird, people: from her old-fashioned yet a bit of an oddball employer, Mr. Nakano, to his sister, Masayo, her colleague, the nervous Takeo, to the many different customers. The novel is divided into twelve chapters, and each one of them reads like a vignette of sorts. Mr. Nakano’s love life becomes almost a running gag uniting these various chapters, as do the rather quirky clients that browse his shop or try to sell him odd objects (we have a set of cursed bowls!).

“It was as if everyone doled themselves out in such small portions. Never completely open, not all at once.”

There are plenty of colourful characters who provide funny anecdotes or go on to have peculiar conversations with Mr. Nakano. While each chapter is self-contained Hitomi’s relationship with Takeo is the thread that binds them together. Their not-quite will they/won’t they romance brought to mind the one from The Idiot. In many ways, Kawakami’s mumblecore dialogues recall those from that novel. The conversations and exchanges that occur in Kawakami’s novel have this stop-and-start quality that makes them all the more realistic. The dialogues can be recursive, sometimes borderline inane. Characters misunderstand each other’s words, parrot one another, or are unable to find the right words to express their feelings/thoughts.
Even when the characters do manage to carry out an actual conversation these can get out of hand, leading to silly/sudden arguments or to childish stalemates.

“This conversation was becoming less and less comprehensible.”

Hiromi’s amusing lapses into navel-gazing too made me think of The Idiot. Her observations and realizations are far from ground-breaking, if anything, they tend to be extremely mundane but her voice has this vitality that makes her inner-monologue anything but dull.

“Whether your voice betrays you, or becomes deliberately calm, in the end it amounts to the same thing, I thought in a corner of my mind.”

Kawakami excels at depicting those tentative, awkward moments that often occur between two people who may be attracted to one another. Hiromi and Takeo’s hesitant flirting really won me over.

“This was what made love so difficult. Or rather, the difficult thing was first determining whether or not love was what I wanted.”

While this novel is very much a slice of life kind of narrative, many of the scenes that occur in this novel are tinged with a sense of surreality.

The only thing that I wasn’t too fond of was the inconsistent use of quotation marks. Some lines have them, some them, often within the same conversation.

Kawakami is not for readers who seek plot, action-driven stories, or layered character studies. If you can do without these things, and if you happen to be looking for an eccentric yet fun read, well, look no further.

my rating: ★★★½

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