When exactly did I give myself over to sleep? When did I stop resisting…? I used to be so lively, I was always wide awake – but when was that? So long ago it felt like ancient times. Like scenes out of the most distant past, panoramas of ferns and dinosaurs that spring roughly to the eye, vividly colored, my memories of that time always appeared to me as images shrouded in mist.
– Asleep, Banana Yoshimoto
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favourite novels ever. It’s a little strange but engaging and never fails to make me cry with its stark portrayal of grief. After reading Asleep I think that perhaps grief and loss are a central theme in Yoshimoto’s work. This is a collection of three short stories, and each is centered around a death.
In the first story Night and Night’s Travelers a young woman is dealing with the sudden death of her childhood sweetheart. Interestingly, the story is told from the point of view of the younger sister of the boyfriend, one year after his death. Like Kitchen, her plain, matter-of-fact writing is undeniably powerful. She writes about grief and loss in a painful, realistic manner. I cried like a baby reading Kitchen and after just finishing this first story in Asleep I cried too. I also loved the underlying darkness to the story. Satomi’s jealously never explicitly stated, but always there. She was an outsider looking in at her brother and his relationships and you could feel her alienation, her resentment and her jealousy.
The second story, Long Songs, was my least favourite. A young woman finds out someone she knew has died, and this makes her rethink their relationship. In this story the lines between reality and something else is blurred and it’s never clear whether there is something supernatural going on or not. This was interesting, but ultimately it did not leave as strong an impression as the other two stories of the trilogy.
It was the final title story that was my favourite and which affected me the most. It’s a little disturbing this story, again the lines between reality and some other is blurred, but here it comes across as more obvious a slip in sanity rather than reality. Again the story is told from the point of view of a young woman, Teruko. She is involved with an older married man and their relationship is tinged by his circumstances. Meanwhile her best friend, who maintained a very strange job, has recently died. Teruko quit work because of her relationship and finds herself tired, sleeping all the time, beginning to lose focus, only being able to wake up when her boyfriend calls. I could relate to this strongly. The escape of sleep and how it can eventually trap you is something anyone who suffers from depression or low moods knows. I feel like that has been happening to me over the past few years – becoming exhausted, finding myself questioning whether something happened or I dreamed it because the lines between being asleep and being awake are so blurred, wandering around “with an unfocused look in my eyes” to quote Yoshimoto. It disturbed me to read this, it hurt. The ending made me cry. Like Kitchen, it is a deeply romantic, very sad story. It starts off disjointed and strange, as the summary I put of it probably comes across, but it comes together beautifully into something quite profound.
None of these stories feel unfinished or unsatisfying, none feel too short. Each story has the element of the surreal, and yet also manages to be very slice and life, and quite ordinary. I think…the emotions are ordinary, although the set-up of the story can be slightly absurd. but because at its core are the realistic emotions and feelings the stories become engaging and highly relatable. I loved this book.