Review: ‘The Nakano Thrift Shop’ Hiromi Kawakami

Among the jumble of paperweights, plates, typewriters and general bric-a-brac in Mr Nakano’s thrift store, there are treasures to be found. Each piece carries its own story of love and loss – or so it seems to Hitomi, when she takes a job there working behind the till. Nor are her fellow employees any less curious or weatherworn than the items they sell. There’s the store’s owner, Mr Nakano, an enigmatic ladies’ man with several ex-wives; Sakiko, his sensuous, unreadable lover; his sister, Masayo, an artist whose free-spirited creations mask hidden sorrows. And finally there’s Hitomi’s fellow employee, Takeo, whose abrupt and taciturn manner Hitomi finds, to her consternation, increasingly disarming. A beguiling story of love found amid odds and ends, The Nakano Thrift Shop is a heart-warming and utterly charming novel from one of Japan’s most celebrated contemporary novelists.

In the before times (future readers of this post, I’m writing this during the Covid era), I used to love hanging out in public places. When I used to live with my grandparents, there was a supermarket near us that had a cafe with a balcony overlooking the rest of the shop. I regularly used to buy a coffee, take a seat on said balcony and do a bit of people watching while reading a book or writing my latest story or poem. Public places are fascinating in the sense that they’re melting pots. You see all sorts of people in these spaces, people who are as different to each other as night is to day, as winter is to summer.

But they’re all united in their need to catch a train, or their need to buy a loaf of bread.

This is why I enjoy reading books set in such places. I enjoy meeting an eclectic mix of characters, characters who wouldn’t have been brought together if their book had been set anywhere else. Each of these characters has their own unique story to tell and, for me, this keeps a story interesting and engaging. You never know who you’re going to meet in the next chapter and it’s this anticipation that keeps me turning those pages.

The fact that The Nakano Thrift Shop is set in, well, the Nakano Thrift Shop is precisely why I decided to read it.

I got my eclectic mix of characters – from an artist who makes dolls to a man in possession of a cursed bowl – but I have to be honest and say that I didn’t find the book all that interesting or engaging. This was largely down to the book’s narrator, Hitomi. As someone on Goodreads summed up perfectly, “she has virtually no personality” and the events of the book just seem so dull from her perspective. All she ever seems to do is repeat what other people have said to her and get annoyed with her love interest, Takeo, who is equally as boring. For me, any character other than these two would have made a better narrator.

I also found the formatting a little odd as well in terms of the dialogue. Some of the dialogue is in quotation marks and some of it isn’t. The dialogue that isn’t in quotation marks often appears in the middle of a paragraph, making it difficult to know who’s talking or if they’re even talking at all.

Overall, I was more interested in the stories of the Nakano Thrift Shop’s customers and owner than that of Hitomi. If I were to sum up the book in one word, it would be “Okay”. Saying that, I’m still going to give Strange Weather In Tokyo a try, which is another Hiromi Kawakami book that I bought at the same time as buying The Nakano Thrift Shop.

Have you read The Nakano Thrift Shop? Let me know in the comments!

Want to read The Nakano Thrift Shop? Head on over to Hive, Bookshop or World of Books to order your copy, or buy it through your local bookstore.

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