6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Braised Pork’ to ‘Hotel Iris’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeThe first Saturday of the month means it is time to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. In this meme, Kate suggests a starter book and the idea is to then create a chain of six more books, linking each one as you see fit.

I didn’t take part last month because August crept up on me unawares, but here is my effort for September. See if you can spot a theme!

This month the starting book is the last one read in August…I’m kind of cheating here because I’m starting with the last one I reviewed in August as I’m about 6 books behind. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book…

‘Braised Pork’ by An Yu (2020)

In this intriguing novel, a young Chinese woman living in Beijing is widowed suddenly and begins a journey of self-discovery, which includes a trip to Tibet, a romance with a local bar owner and a rediscovery of her artistic side. The prose style is simple and hypnotic and the story blends folklore and mythic elements to create a rather enigmatic, sometimes perplexing, tale.

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian (2009)

Another novel set in Beijing, this 600-plus extravaganza is a powerful story that bears witness to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. t is a deeply moving account of the student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work, but in Ma Jian’s hands, this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective. (The book is banned in China and the writer is living in exile in the UK.)

‘The Man from Beijing’ by Hanning Mankell (2011)

The obvious link here is in the title, but I’m also linking to it because it is about a massacre. It’s a stand-alone crime novel (ie. not part of Mankell’s famous Wallender detective series) that follows an investigation into Sweden’s biggest (fictional) mass murder in which 19 people are slaughtered overnight in a sleepy village in the middle of winter. It’s not a police procedural as such because the crime is investigated by a middle-aged judge who has been signed off from work and needs something to occupy her time. Structurally, the book has some issues — the story, for instance, jumps back to the mid-19th century just as the investigation is hotting up, which interrupts the page-turning quality of the tale — but it’s an intriguing look at modern-day China’s hidden influence on the world and Mankell is not shy about wearing his politics on his sleeve, so to speak.

‘The Aosowa Murders’ by Riku Ondo (2020)

Sorry about the dark turn, but here’s another novel that features a mass murder as its starting point. In this unconventional crime novel from Japan, the focal point is the death of 17 people who are deliberately poisoned at a family celebration. The prime suspect is the family’s blind daughter, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill her loved ones? The novel is not really a whodunnit or a whydunnit. Instead, it looks at the far-reaching impact of the crime on the lives of so many people, including the police investigators, and it’s written retrospectively using multiple voices and multiple time-frames with no neat solution or ending.

‘Newcomer’ by Keigo Higashino (2018) 

Conventional structure is thrown out the window in this Japanese crime novel, too. Higashino is my favourite Japanese crime writer but this one was a little disappointing. it is set in Tokyo and follows the police investigation into the death of a 40-year-old woman. Each phase of the investigation is told as if it’s a standalone short story. With each new story, or chapter, we learn something new about the case as the list of suspects grows longer and longer. Eventually, Detective Kyochiro Kaga, a sharp-minded, highly experienced policeman, reveals the identity of the culprit, but it takes a long time to get there!

‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ by Hiromi Kawakami (2013)

Staying in Tokyo, but leaving the crime behind, this is a bittersweet tale about a 30-something woman who embarks on a relationship with an older man who was once her teacher at school. It’s an unconventional love story because the pair never make dates; they simply go to the same bar at around the same time, sit next to each other and spend the evening drinking and talking. Their relationship, which grows from friendship into love, unfolds as gently as the narrative, which is written in stripped-back, often elegiac, prose.

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa (2011) 

Another story about a relationship between a younger woman and an older man, this novel takes a horrifying subject — a sexual deviant praying on an innocent girl — but writes about it beautifully. The prose is lush and hypnotic and the narrative is perfectly restrained, and yet it brims with tension. Will 17-year-old Mari be okay or will her boyfriend, who is 50 years her senior, turn out to be the next Ted Bundy?

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a tale about a young Chinese widower on the brink of a new life to the tale of a Japanese teenager playing with fire, via stories set in Beijing and Tokyo, most of them using unconventional structures to keep things interesting. 

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note that you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hiromi Kawakami, Japan, literary fiction, Portobello Books

‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ by Hiromi Kawakami


Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 192 pages; 2013. Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo (titled The Briefcase in the US, where it was published in 2012) is a bittersweet love story between a 30-something woman and an older man, which was shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize in 2012 and has just been longlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Strange romance

But this is no typical romance: Tsukiko, an office worker, spends much of her spare time drinking beer and saké in a local bar, which is where she notices a man, about 30 years her senior, who used to be her teacher at school, drinking alone. The pair strike up a conversation and, through a series of coincidences, keep meeting at the bar, where they sit next to each other, talk, eat and drink, often into the small hours.

There is no formal arrangement between them — indeed, their tentative friendship appears, on the surface, to be nothing more than a passing acquaintance. Tsukiko doesn’t even know the man’s name, and refers to him only as “Sensei” (a Japanese word, which I believe means “person born before another”, though it can also mean “teacher”).

They never arrange to meet at the bar and can go for weeks at a time without seeing one another. But whenever they are at the bar at the same time, they share a drink and pass the evening chatting. They always leave separately and pay their bills separately.

Their relationship, which grows from friendship into love, unfolds as gently as the narrative, which is written in the stripped back, often elegiac, prose I’ve come to expect from Japanese fiction. Over the course of a few months, Tsukiko, who narrates the story in the first person, comes to realise that she is very fond of Sensei, mainly because she misses him when he’s not around. A fledgling romance with a man her own age also makes her realise that she would prefer to be in the company of the older, more considerate (and less demanding) Sensei.

Disconnected lives

As ever with Japanese fiction (or, at least, in my experience of having read just a handful of Japanese titles), one of the central themes is loneliness and alienation, of being cast adrift in a sea of similarly lonely people but lacking the ability (or the awareness) to make meaningful connections with other people.

When I was in Tokyo, I couldn’t help but feel that I was always alone, or occasionally in the company of Sensei. It seemed that the only living things in Tokyo were big like us. But of course, if I really paid attention, there were plenty of other living things surrounding me in the city as well. It was never just the two of us, Sensei and me. Even when we were at the bar, I tended to only take notice of Sensei. But Satoru [the barman] was always there, along with the usual crowd of familiar faces. And I never really acknowledged that any of them were alive in any way. I never gave any thought to the fact that they were leading the same kind of complicated life as I was.

There’s also a lot of food references in this novel — almost every page is littered with descriptions of Japanese cuisine, almost as if the food is a substitute for the sex that is missing from the lives of the two main characters. There is so much food in this novel that instead of becoming hungry, I found myself becoming irritated (I had similar problems with Shuichi Yoshida’s Villain, which is also filled with endless descriptions of unfamiliar Japanese dishes).

That said, it would be churlish of me to nit-pick, because, on the whole, Strange Weather in Tokyo is an extraordinary novella about the value of, and deep human need for, companionship. It is gentle, wise and written in such an hypnotic style it casts a spell upon the reader as it draws you in to the dark world of Tokyo bars and the unlikely friendships it produces. It is deeply haunting and strangely moving.


The photograph, Today’s Levitation, is by Natsumi Hayashi and spans both the front and back cover of the book. Visit the photographer’s website to see more levitation photographs.