I don’t want to go for glib connections within foreign fiction, but I’ve been really struck by two books that were placed high-up on my 2016 reading pile. Yoshimoto’s ‘Kitchen’ and Kawakami’s ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ both left me with a sense of having peeked into fragmented lives across the globe. They also both left me feeling very hungry; main characters share a methodical obsession with food leaving me, as a British reader, with an unsatisfied and ignorant craving for dishes that I could neither picture nor pronounce.
For the bereaved protagonists of the two stories that make up ‘Kitchen’, food is an escape from and link with the past. Emotions are so difficult and love so complex that cooking and ritualising food and drink become powerful tools in the healing process. The limitations of such a method are exposed, even the most mystical tea drinking ceremony cannot bring the dead back to life, but the necessity for discovering some way of making order in a shaken world is also sensitively and poignantly understood.
In ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ the loss is less defined. Instead, two lonely souls find companionship through sharing food and drink. The sensual listing of bar snacks and favourite dishes takes the place of more complex human emotions. As the narrator tells us: ‘I was pretty sure that I wasn’t very good at this whole love thing. And if being in love required so much effort, then I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of it anyway. ‘ It’s easier to construct routines around food and drink, but the characters are going to have to learn how passions and habits have a way ensnaring you; lives and food are both made for sharing.
These two books are precise, delicate and imbued with a quiet power that will stay with you long after their short reading time. If Han Kang’s sublime ‘The Vegetarian’ dealt with the trauma of consumption in a sick society, these two volumes show food as redemptive, comforting and a desperately needed method for reaching out to others. Higly recommended reads, though probably not for anyone contemplating diets or trying to reduce the wish to munch while reading.
As a side note: ‘The Vegetarian’, (reviewed here) is on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize shortlist and I highly, highly recommend it to everyone.