Hiromi Kawakami is fast becoming the go-to novelist for publishers looking to expand their Japanese list, slipping effortlessly into the “quirky” space once occupied by Banana Yoshimoto. “The Nakano Thrift Shop” is exactly what readers have come to expect from her: eccentric character excavations that are somehow intensely focused yet almost flippantly delivered.
The center of the novel is Hitomi, a young woman who works in Mr. Nakano’s thrift shop. Nakano’s sister, Masayo, and his driver, Takeo, complete the workforce. Together they form an ersatz inverted nuclear family, modern in its utility and formation. For 21st-century urbanites, friends and colleagues occupy traditional family roles, while “real” relatives are distant and serve for practical help but never emotional support.
Hitomi is an unreliable narrator, her changing moods and desires eluding even her own understanding. Speech is sometimes differentiated by quotation marks, sometimes not, causing a slippage between Hitomi’s inner monologue and her social interaction. This is a risky tightrope to attempt, but it works to great effect — in part due to Allison Markin Powell’s striking translation.
The ending is a bit disappointing, displaying a need for closure that is out of sync with the book’s openness, but overall this novel will only add to Kawakami’s growing international reputation. She knows she doesn’t need fireworks to keep the reader entertained, and is pushing her exploration of form and style.