As a self-confessed Japanophile it seems only fitting that me first ‘Top 5’ list is 5 of my favourite books that are translated from Japanese. I always find Japanese books have such a distinct style, often with a wonderfully calming tone and the distinctions of Japanese culture shining through.
There are so many great authors to choose from that it’s been pretty tough to narrow it down but after much deliberation, here are my top 5:
1) Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Choosing which of Murakami’s novels to put on this list was definitely a toughie, but for some reason Kafka on the Shore has stuck with my just a little bit more than some of the others (which are definitely worth reading even if they’re not on this list!).
Kafka Tamura, a teenage boy, runs away from home in search of his long-lost mother after catching wind of an oedipal prophecy. His journey takes him to strange places and he meets a whole cast of unusual characters – a forest which hosts soldiers unaged since WWII, Cats and people converse and fish fall from the sky. Meanwhile, Nakata, an aging simpleton who does little more with his day than talk to cats is drawn towards Kafka. Unbeknownst to them, the two character’s fates are intertwined and no matter how hard they may try to escape their fate, it will catch up with them.
2) Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa
Sweet Bean Paste is a beautiful story about unlikely friendships and redemption, tied in with the cruel forced isolation of leprosy patients – now known as Hansen’s disease – in Japan until the 1990s, despite awareness that the disease was not highly contagious and was treatable.
The story begins when a struggling dorayaki (pancake) vendor, Sentaro, who has a criminal record, drinks to excess and has given up nearly all hope on achieving his dreams. When Tokue, an elderly lady with disfigured hands makes him the best sweet bean paste he has ever tasted, Sentaro secretly takes her on as his assistant against the will of his employer. Tokue teaches Sentaro the secrets of her sweet bean paste and as their friendship develops Sentaro is forced to face-up to his demons.
3) The Memory Police by Yoko Okagawa
On an unnamed island things are disappearing. The residents wake up and something is gone from their memory. First it is hats, then ribbons, then birds. Most people carry on without memory of these objects once they have disappeared and have just a faint glimmer of absence if they come into contact with them again in the future, and so, unsettled by this sense of absence they cast the forgotten items out into the river. What’s the point in holding onto something you don’t remember?
However some people remember. These people live in fear of the Memory Police – a draconian enforcement regime, who ensure that disappeared objects remain forgotten.
As the disappearances become increasingly serious, a struggling young writer discovers that her editor is in danger from the Memory Police. She concocts a plan to hide him beneath her floorboards. Meanwhile, things are being forgotten faster and faster and as her memory fades the young woman finds it increasingly difficult to keep her secret under wraps.
4) The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo
Yokomizo is Japan’s version of Agatha Christie, swapping a the moustache-twirling Belgian detective Poirot for a scruffy young Japanese prodigy, Kosuke Kindaichi. The Honjin Murders is the first detective novel in the series. It tells the story of a wedding gone horribly wrong when the newlyweds are found locked in their own bedroom, with nobody having apparently gone in our out.
This a fantastic locked room mystery and I challenge anyone to guess the solution. The good news is, if you like this one then the next one, The Inugami Curse, has been translated into English as well!
5) The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada
As the world is ravaged by an environmental disaster, Tokyo is isolated from the rest of the world. The elderly live for longer, but the children suffer increasing health problems. There are almost no animals and electrical appliances are frowned upon – often limited to just a fridge.
Yoshiro’s grandson was born frail and is prone to sickness. Yoshiro himself is over 100 years old but every day he works hard to keep his grandson alive. This is a strange book, very distinct from most of the other books on this list. It is a strange dystopia with an ethereal feel. Mainly I think I just liked it for its uniqueness – where the old become stronger than the young in the face of disaster, rather than vice versa, and the exploration of the knock-on effects this has on society.
This wonderful novel spans generations and combines the power of 12 startling voices to share the experiences of British women of color. Mainly set in London we hear the story of a proud black lesbian playwright, her sassy super-feminist daughter and a sexually fluid millennial, just to name a couple.
It’s Black History Month in the UK and I decided this year I should finally get round to reading some of those incredible stories that I haven’t quite made time for yet.
I can definitely see why this books is a bit love it or hate it. The story of Dexter and Em is given to us in snapshots, Starting from their meeting at uni up to their late 30s, the book oozes sexual tension, but with an increasingly dark edge which reminded me of Sally Rooney’s novels.