Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 208 pages; 2005. Translated from the Japanese by W.P. Lammers.
Sometimes you pick up a book and find yourself so lost in the story that whenever you put it down — if you can put it down — that you find yourself thinking about it, and counting the hours, minutes, until you can resume reading it again.
When I initially picked up Taichi Yamada’s Strangers, a slim volume with slightly too-large print, I had no idea what to expect from it. Little did I know the stranglehold it would have over me for the three days it took me to read. Every time I had to close the book, owing to my deep and abiding need for sleep during a hectic working week, I did so reluctantly. And every morning I’d wake up, a little knot of excitement in my tummy, knowing that this magical, haunting, little book was awaiting my eager eyes.
Paradoxically, as much as I could not wait to reach the final, chilling conclusion, I also did not want the story to end, and I admittedly dragged it out for at least a day longer than was truly necessary.
Strangers is one of those beguiling tales told in simple, hypnotic prose. The first person narrative by 48-year-old Harada, a depressed and slightly jaded TV scriptwriter living in Tokyo, is strangely addictive despite the sometimes clunky sentence structure and the not-quite-right dialogue littered with American slang (perhaps a fault of the translator rather than the author?)
The story opens with Harada admitting that life as a newly divorced man has left him a little cash-strapped. Unable to afford a nice home, he is now living in an apartment that was once his office. His aching loneliness is mirrored in the silence that surrounds him each night, the only resident in a seven-storey building on a busy traffic route.
This feeling of too much quiet first came over me on a night near the end of July as I sat working at my desk a little after eleven. A chill ran down my spine, and I felt as though I were suspended in the middle of a vast dark void, utterly alone. “It’s awfully quiet,” I murmured. I ignored the feeling as I continued to write. Had my divorce left me with unresolved anxieties of some kind, I wondered. Who in their right mind would think that a building overlooking a major traffic artery was too quiet?
This unsettled feeling gets worse when he discovers he has a neighbour living on the third floor, an attractive 33-year-old woman, whom he suspects is as lonely as he is. They have a nodding acquaintance but Harada lacks the courage to ask her over for a drink.
This creeping unease turns to shock when he finds out that his longtime collaborator, Mamiya, is going to marry his ex-wife. And just when you think things couldn’t get worse, or the narrator couldn’t possibly begin to feel any more confused or out-of-sorts, on a spontaneous visit to the suburb in which he grew up he runs into a man that looks exactly like his long-dead father.
He was looking back at me. My heart stopped. The man smiled and dipped his head in a little nod. My flesh went cold. Averting my eyes, I stared at the floor and tried to quell my extreme agitation. Why would he be looking at me? Why would he smile and nod as if he knew me?
From here on in, the story becomes slightly surreal and totally mesmirising, as Harada resumes contact with the parents that left him orphaned at the age of 12. His mother and father seem not to have aged since their deaths and he grapples with the realisation that a “thirty-something couple could not possibly be the parents of a 48-year-old man”. Harada finds himself living in a kind of twilight world, unable to determine what is real and what is not…
At its most basic level Strangers is a ghost story, but the simple detached prose style belies a much deeper psychological anaylsis of modern life and how the relationships between men and women, parents and children shape our personalities and our lives. While the core of the story is eerie and edgy, this is not a horror story but a very human tale about grief and longing. I found it enormously sad and know the mood — and memory — of this book will stay with me for a long, long time. If only every book I read was like this!