If you’re used to spicy food, Japanese food may at first taste a little bland. It’s only after a while that your palate can detect the subtle variations of broiled eel, soba noodles or miso soup (to name a few of my favorites).
Yoshimoto’s short stories are very similar. If you just finished reading a very emotional story or anything with a particularly twisted plot before picking this book, you may miss out on all the fun and not like it at all: most of her stories are about subtle, almost infinitesimal changes in her main characters. Not a brutal epiphany, just a sort of drift from their original position in order to find themselves (more) at peace with the world.
The main characters often seem ordinary, but there’s always a twist, sometimes a supernatural fact that is presented in very ordinary, understated terms, sometimes a psychological state where the character (more often than not a young urban woman) feels a bit of an outsider, slightly naïve (bordering to childish) and taking everything lightly, even life-changing decisions. They seem to worry little and attach themselves even less. I have seen many Japanese young women act like this, and to a Western person, it’s very puzzling. For example, in the last story of this collection, “A strange tale from down by the river” (the one I preferred, together with Dreaming of Kimchee), a young engaged woman suddenly learns that her fiancé has been informed of her previous intense sexual life. In a Western novel, you would expect a storm of emotions, arguments from the betrayed man, shame, guilt, threats, pleas, and lots of tears. I won’t tell you the end, but at least I can reveal that you won’t get any of those expectations fulfilled.
These stories are very soothing and serene. I appreciated that the backdrop was contemporary Japan and not full of local clichés (sushi on tatamis etc.), but the philosophy behind them is undoubtedly very Japanese.