Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto is a novella with a fresh voice and unique perspective. The main character, Mikage, finds herself orphaned as she’s either finishing high school or early in her college career. It’s hard to tell, and ultimately not that important to the story. What is important is how Mikage deals with her grief. She takes solace in the kitchen. The novella begins:
The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it’s a kitchen, if it’s a place where they make food, it’s find with me. Ideally it should be well broken in. Lots of tea towels, dry and immaculate. White tile catching the light (ting! ting!).
I love even incredibly dirty kitchens to distraction–vegetable droppings all over the floor, so dirty your slippers turn black on the bottom. Strangely, it’s better if this kind of kitchen is large. I lean up against the silver door of a towering, giant refrigerator stocked with enough food to get through a winter. When I raise my eyes from the oil-spattered gas burner and the rust kitchen knife, outside the window stars are glittering, lonely.
Now only the kitchen and I are left. It’s just a little nicer than being all alone.
Mikage sleeps in the kitchen at night, and finds some small comfort amidst her loss. Yoshimoto then explores the notion of family. A teenage boy, Yuichi, who is around Mikage’s age, stops by unannounced, days after her grandmother’s funeral. He worked at the flower shop where Mikage’s grandmother shopped at least once a week. Yuichi invites Mikage to come stay with him and his mother, Eriko. It’s a strange request, but Mikage agrees to visit as there is something disarming and natural about Yuichi’s disposition.
What follows is a story about creating happiness in a world full of loss, seeking to define relationships and identities based on love and need, and not on cultural norms. As Mikage and Yuichi struggle to make sense of the world, they also attempt to understand one another and what their relationship means.
If you are new to Banana Yoshimoto, I suggest starting with Kitchen. There is a life to the writing that fills the page, and it seems to be the point from which her other work emerges. Hardboiled and Hard Luck seem like re-writes of the same ideas, but without the energy or originality that makes Kitchen special.