“I had a feeling that I wasn’t crying over any one sad thing, but rather for many. […] I wished my heart would break and get it over it.” Thoughts on Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow, both by Banana Yoshimoto (translated from Japanese by Megan Backus)

Banana Yoshimoto made me cry on my birthday. She made me think of my past year, and she made me think of you, too.

It wasn’t my intention, really, to read Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow on the night of my birthday; in fact, it wasn’t my intention to read Yoshimoto anytime soon at all. I was still sorely amused by her fruity first name to take her book seriously (this coming from someone who lives in a country where Apple is a fairly common name).

But there I was, bored on my 21st, eyeing my shelf for a quick enough read for the night, and so I pulled out her slim little book, plopped myself down on the couch with a bag of chips and a glass of soda, and read until the wee hours of the night.

By two in the morning I was holding back sobs and wiping my nose, wanting so much to go about the house with arms flailing because, goddamnit, how can I think of you on a special night like this?

And why, oh why, did I read two such bittersweet novellas on a supposedly happy night?

“When I’m dead worn out, in a reverie, I often think that when it comes to die, I want to breathe my last in a kitchen,” says Mikage, whose only remaining blood relative, her grandmother, dies and leaves her completely alone. Then she meets Yuichi, a boy her age who was very close to her grandmother, and who invites Mikage to live with him and his charming – albeit unusual – mother, Eriko. The relationship of these three people is the story of Kitchen – a story of love and loss and of moving on.

“Maybe all I had been hoping for was a bed in which to be able to stop thinking, just for a little while, about what happened before and what would happen in the future,” and I knew then and there that this book was in some way speaking to me; that I would love this character Mikage because she was speaking my language; that she was me, and I was her, and that at one point in my life I have said, or I’ve been meaning to say, the same things. “From the bottom of my heart, I wanted to give up; I wanted to give up on living. There was no denying that tomorrow would come, and the day after tomorrow, and so next week, too. I never thought it would be this hard, but I would go on living in the midst of a gloomy depression, and that made me feel sick to the depths of my soul.”

I saw how apt the whole thing was; I saw how all this was already laid out before me, that this was gift of sorts from some great entity I barely knew. Because this was the story of my past year, only of a varied kind, and that sitting on the couch reading this book was in truth a kind of retrospection of my life, and that lo, here was my 20th year written down for me in someone else’s words so that I may grasp it more fully and take something from the experience of it all. Granted, I did not have someone die on me, unlike Mikage, but I knew the feeling of a loss so great it consumed me for the past year and dug a hole in my person, a void that I thought would always and forever be gaping and which scared the shit out of me because it felt that nothing and no one could save me from it. “There are many days when all the awful things that happen make you sick at heart, when the path before you is so steep you can’t bear to look. Not even love can rescue a person from that.” So true, so true.

And then there was Satsuki, who in Moonlight Shadow experienced a loss of a different kind – the death of a lover, Hitoshi, who died in a car accident. How do you deal with that, an instant parting without a chance to say goodbye? And it is here that I remember you, and I am thrown back into the past full of uncertainty and regret mingled with blissful happiness and the need to make things work, how it all ended without a good enough explanation and an incomplete resolution. What then? “All I wanted was to get through this as quickly as possible, to see the day when memories would be just memories. But the more I wanted that, the further away it seemed. Thinking of the future only made me shudder.” Thinking of the future only reminded me of how you’re not a part of it anymore.

“The times of great happiness and great sorrow were too intense; it was impossible to reconcile them with the routine of daily life,” and so I got rid of the routine altogether, wallowed in self-pity and abused the bed. But, “After my painful, fitful sleep, whether or not I had been able to see him, on awakening I would know it had been only a dream – in reality I would never be with him again. And so I tried not to wake up.”

Had I known that such a small book could contain so much beauty and power in a thousand strings of words, I’d have done two things, depending on my state: on one hand, I would have run away, delayed reading this for as long as possible, because to read a story not unlike mine, not unlike ours, unfold before my eyes, teeming with lines that pierced straight through the heart – it was both beautiful and lovely that it was sad to see it pass. But I didn’t run away; I held my ground. And amidst the small pangs of hurt I found solace in two stories that spoke of moving on. “People aren’t overcome by situations or outside forces; defeat invades from within, I thought,” and again I realized yes, this is true. “In this world, there is no place for sadness. No place; not one.”

If I could take hold of time and wind it back like a clock, I think I would have given you this book on the night I flew away and told you to read it, goddamnit, because it is everything I have failed and will never be brave enough to tell you, and if fate were a person I’d have hoped he’d handed this to me one day and told me to read it, because it would prepare me for everything that’s headed my way. But now I know better, now I know that was and never will be the case. “I realized that the world did not exist for my benefit. It followed that ratio of pleasant and unpleasant things around me would not change. It wasn’t up to me. It was clear that the best thing to do was to adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness.” Ah, there it is, a word to describe my state – muddled cheerfulness. Muddled, yes, but cheerful all the same.

Sigh. If there was only one thing to be thankful for on my 21st, it would be that for some reason I chose Yoshimoto’s Kitchen among the handful of books on my shelf. It was meant to be – I just know it.

PS. “Parting and death are both terribly painful. But to keep nursing the memory of a love so great you can’t believe you’ll ever love again is a useless drain on a woman’s energies.”

PPS. The best line I’ve read in a book, ever: “Believe in the me that you knew.”

PPPS. I climbed a window ledge for you on your birthday, too. You never knew, of course. You never knew.

5 Responses to ““I had a feeling that I wasn’t crying over any one sad thing, but rather for many. […] I wished my heart would break and get it over it.” Thoughts on Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow, both by Banana Yoshimoto (translated from Japanese by Megan Backus)”
  1. Yorkhull says:

    I don’t know how I came to be following you on twitter I just found your tweets appearing and they were fun and challenging and so I am and I am really glad now because I so much enjoyed this blog. The depth of feeling and to be moved by these books you read and to find, if not answers, understanding of where you are and where you want to be, moved me even after all these years of my life. Mememorable birthdays are great even if the memories can be bittersweet, at least they stay with you. I am temtped to read these books myself now!! Thanks. Take Care

    • Pauline says:

      Thank you very much for your kind words, Yorkhull. Glad to know your stumbling on my blog had a happy outcome. I hope you find the time to read these books – this one especially. And you’re right – memorable birthdays are great even if the memories can be bittersweet. 🙂

  2. This is one of my favorite books and that was a lovely, lovely review. It said everything I could never say about my own loss and reading it has been cathartic for me, too. Happy 21st. I hope you have your katsudon moment soon. 🙂

    • Pauline says:

      Thank you, dementedchris. I did have a different version of that katsudon moment, but it didn’t end as great as the one in the book. Hopefully my next katsudon moment is better and more memorable. 😉

  3. Yorkhull says:

    Hi Pauline
    Just wanted to add a postscript to say that I had finally got around to reading both Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow when they were posted to me recently. I had not realised they had been around since 1988 which shows how many books we can miss on this journey of discovery. I found the writing of both stories exquisite and its essentially optimistic tone in the light of darkness and loss suits my own personal philosophy so much there was much I could take from these little novels.
    So my chance virtual encounter with you has produced an enjoyable and challenging read for which I thank you. I hope your 21st year is bvecoming a more joyful and fulfilling one for you as you turn the next corner of your life.

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