The girl on the front is in perfect silhouette. Turn to the back of the novel, however, and you will find her image blurred. Fading. Disappearing for an unknown reason into an unknown place…

As so often happens with me when I conclude a work of Japanese literature, I am completely entranced by the mood. Caught up in the poetic imagery, the sensation of being there with the characters, living through their actions and experiencing their emotions. But, I don’t know how to write about it exactly, how to capture the aura the author has created.

So it is with Yamada’s novel, Strangers. Hideo tells his story from the first person narrative, unfolding the events as they have occurred to him until its shocking conclusion. His parents died when he was twelve, and to compound his loneliness we find he has asked his wife for a divorce to which she has agreed since their marriage had become little more than indifference. “The truth was, she too felt an emptiness in our marriage, and once she had had sometime to think about it, she wholeheartedly embraced the idea of divorce. We did hit some rough spots on the way to the financial settlement, but no one would have termed the divorce a messy one. At the very least, compared to muddling on endlessly in a lifeless marriage, donning the same old benign faces day in and day out as we went about our lives together but apart, the decisive action had awakened in me a whole new zest for life.”

One night, he wanders into the Asakusa Variety Hall and notices a man resembling his father. More than resembling his father, this man is eerily like his father in every way. Hideo follows him and finds himself at an apartment with his mother and father who were exactly the same age they were when they died, although Hideo himself is now in his late forties. He feels energized by their company, longs for further communication together, and returns several times to feel the comfort one’s parents can give. “Don’t be a stranger,” they tell him when they bid him farewell at the end of their evenings.

At the same time, he becomes involved with his neighbor, Kei, who has asked him to share a bottle of champagne with him one evening. Although he turned her away, upset at the news that his wife is being courted by one of his friends, Kei and Hideo eventually become quite close. Except that she will not let him see her torso unsheathed, nor let him touch it. Apparently, she is self-conscious about a terrible burn which has left her disfigured.

Hideo’s world becomes centered around the relationship he has with his parents and with his new love. He is shocked when she tells him that he looks so very tired, so drawn, so aged. How can this be, he wonders, when he has never felt stronger in his life? When he looks at his hands, they appear completely normal to him. When he looks in the mirror, he sees himself as he has always been.

But what is real? Who is real? What does he learn from those he loves, or from those who love him? This is the central theme of the novel, toward which we are catapulted from the beginning to the end…an unnerving conclusion to Hideo, as well as ourselves. With his novel Strangers, Yamada brilliantly examines one’s sources of comfort. Of love. And the effect our lives have on one another.

30 thoughts on “Strangers”

  1. I read this years ago though I don't remember much about it. I think it will make a great addition to the list I'm compiling of 'Short Books for Book Clubs.' Sounds like I'll have to reread it too!


  2. Thanks for this beautiful review of this wonderful book! I haven't heard of Yamada before and he looks like an extremely talented writer. I will add this book to my 'TBR' list.


  3. This sounds wonderful! I love how you mention the mood of Japanese lit, because it is so true. After you finish a book by Yoshimoto, Ogawa or Murakami, the mood they have created with their words is left lingering and I love it! I love how their literature is able to not only transport you to a different place, but it also makes you feel the atmosphere, mood that the characters are experiencing. This book definitely sounds like something I would read. Thanks! I've added this one to my TBR list 🙂


  4. Addendum to my post:

    As I was thinking more (continually?) about this novel I'm pondering these two questions:

    1.) Why is it that he can only seem to find love from those who have died?

    2.)Do we have a second chance at relationships?

    I think this is part of what Yamada wants us consider after reading his novel.


  5. Gonna have to see if there is any interlibrary loan for this, as my library doesn't have it, Barnes and Noble is out of stock and it is a little pricey on Amazon for a paperback book that is 6 years old.


  6. No luck on interlibrary loan. If you want to loan me your copy that would be great. I'd be happy to reimburse you for shipping and send it right back to you as soon as I'm done. Since it is short I'm sure I could knock it out pretty quickly this month.


  7. I knew you'd enjoy this one! It's the perfect “atmospheric” read for the RIP, definitely. I passed my copy on to New Orleans Chris. I should probably remind him about it, since it's RIP Season. I didn't look for any deep meaning in the story, to be honest. I just enjoyed the writing, the ghostly atmosphere and the change of pace. BTW, did I tell you I'm going to Japan?


  8. No! Japan? Really?! Oh, Nancy, I can't wait to hear about that experience! Of the two countries I've wanted to visit (not live in, mind you, that would be Italia) Japan is one. The other is Russia. I digress; what I meant to say was, “I'm so excited for you!”


  9. Hi! Just wanted to leave this info here in case you didn't check my comment back on my blog. The reading for the Persuasion readalong BEGINS September 18. You're not late to the party at all! 🙂

    Hope your first few weeks of school have gone well!


  10. Thanks for sharing this in the R.I.P. Challenge! I also enjoy Japanese Novels. Have you ever read any by Ryu Murakami?

    I am going to add this book to my “pending pile”.


  11. Ooh, yes, this goes on the To Read list–it sounds lovely and haunting!

    I wonder if the cover blurb is from David Mitchell of Mitchell & Webb? If so, bonus! He's smart and funny.


  12. This is a powerful novel-for me is it about the hold the dead have over the living-either as ghosts or memories-this novel will really move people who have lost both parents, it is a very good choice for the R I P event. I thought it did a good job depicting the life of the lead character-I really enjoyed reliving this book through your great review-I read it for JL3-I could see it as a reread for sure-


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