Kitchen: A Book Review

When I was recommended this book by my good friend it immediately captured my attention as a unique and progressive tale. Published in 1987 and then translated by Megan Backus in 1993, Kitchen, written by Banana Yoshimoto, is still a well-regarded example of contemporary Japanese fiction. It won two of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes and was “hailed as the young voice of Japan” by the Independent on Sunday. This novella is an intimate tale of universal emotions: love, loss, pain, loneliness, and acceptance. The central protagonist Mikage Sakurai is a young Japanese woman who has lost both her parents and following the death of her Grandmother, moves in with her Grandmother’s friend Yuichi and his mother Eriko. The three of them form an unexpected family and despite their personal grief, they find a uniting comfort and stability in each other’s company.

Set in the domestic realm of the everyday kitchen, this story ingeniously converts the mundane world into a space of laughter, life and vitality where the ordinary becomes extraordinary and beautiful. Despite the novel’s short length, the reader becomes immersed in the story, effortlessly understanding and empathising with the main characters. The first-person narrative style allows the reader deeper access into Mikage’s hopes and desires as well as her pain and loss. The quotation:

“As I grow older, much older, I will experience many things, and I will hit rock bottom again and again. Again, and again I will suffer; again and again I will get back on my feet. I will not be defeated. I won’t let my spirit be destroyed”,

is particularly poignant. She truthfully describes the trials of life experienced by all, such as the loss of her grandmother, but her message is not one of despair. It is her optimistic outlook that truly illustrates her internal strength and the reader cannot help but greatly admire Mikage. This simple but powerful rationality is similarly reflected in the relationships between the characters. Kitchen follows the realistic and bittersweet relationship of Yoichi and Mikage, who are just two people that gradually fall in love. Their story does not follow the predictable rom-com trajectory but nevertheless is just as emotive and moving.

What I enjoy most about this book is its inclusive and compassionate representation of humanity and this especially can be seen in the character of Yoshimoto, Yoichi’s mother (who was once his father). This book has been praised for including a transgender character (especially as a novella written in 1988), but what is more, is that she is not defined by her identity. Her identity is not pre-empted by the author and her role as a mother is instead what is centralised. Love rather than hate thrives in Kitchen and it is the uniting force of family and food where the characters find joy and friendship. The quotation:

“May the memory of this moment, here, the glowing impression of the two of us facing each other in this warm, bright place drinking lovely hot tea, help save him, even a little bit”,

exemplifies this theme. Whether it be over a cup of tea or a bowl of “soupy rice” it is the simple warmth of the kitchen that represents universal stability we all search for. There is a profound joy depicted in the small moments. Kitchen is a tale of simplicity aptly contained in a short, beautifully written form but also contains the full extent of human experience and this is why I will go on to recommend this novel as it was recommended to me.

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