Copyright 2003 - Faber & Faber
First published 1987
That evening, a violent thunderstorm passed over the city. I watched the driving rain and lightning from a bar on the top floor of a high-rise hotel. The rain dashed against the glass in torrents, making the window a blur. It turned the jagged bolts of lightning stabbing at the earth into nothing more than diffuse flickers, which irritated me a little. I ached to smash the massive pane and see the lightning bolts descend in all their piercing brilliance. I longed to distance myself from anything ambiguous, anything non-transparent, anything belonging to darkness. I wanted to be in a world where all was bright and clean and in sharp focus. Precisely for that reason, I had steered clear of basement and ground-level establishments to seek out brighter environs, high in the sky, but thanks to thunderclouds, abetted by the gathering dusk, the realm of darkness had encroached moment by moment upon my world even here.
--p. 84, Strangers
Middle-aged Harada has only been divorced a short time and now lives in the apartment he formerly used as his office. On a whim, Harada returns to Akasuka, the district of Tokyo in which he grew up. In a theater, he sees a man who looks exactly like his father and follows him home, only to find himself led to an apartment where his mother and father, who died when he was 12, both appear to be living . . . and they haven't aged at all. Are his parents alive or ghosts? Or, is Harada losing his mind?
When the apartment building's only other resident, Kei, befriends him, he finds that he's enjoying her company but he continues to be drawn back to the alternate reality in Akasuka. Then, Kei notices something strange is happening to Harada and he realizes that, much as he loves hanging out in this other world, he may not survive if he continues.
Strangers is quite a creepy book, a ghost story but Japanese and therefore very different from ghost stories in the Western tradition. I think it would be a spoiler to tell exactly how the book is different so I'm just going to attempt to keep this short and tell you about the writing, the characters, etc. Writing-wise, the book is a translation but very well done. It's haunting and lyrical. The translation of the book from Japanese to English was obviously handled well.
Harada, the protagonist, is fairly successful as a screenwriter but emotionally he's a mess. Much as he'd like to think he moved on, he has apparently never moved past the grief of his parents' death, instead going on with his life and suppressing his distress and pain. His divorce has brought emotion to the surface; for the first time in his life, he really has to face the hurt and loneliness that followed tragic loss.
There really aren't that many characters, actually. Kei is another lost soul who has been badly burned in more ways than one (she hides a horrible burn scar) and is somewhat mysterious. There's a man Harada works for, who is interested in Harada's ex-wife and Harada speaks to his bitter ex by phone, briefly. Harada's parents are obviously ghosts but do they know they're ghosts? You don't find the answer to that question for quite some time. They're really quite lively and light-hearted, which gives you an idea of how Harada came to be such a disaster. He was not a wealthy boy, but he was happy when he lost his family.
Slow but steady plotting (not to be confused with the word "boring); Strangers is what I call a "quiet" book, although it's a book that throws up so many questions that you can't help but rabidly keep turning the pages and you're rewarded in the end. The transition from quiet, introspective ghost story to a heart-pounding ending is really amazing.
The bottom line:
An eerie, well-written Japanese ghost story that is startling in its simplicity and impact. Definitely recommended, particularly to those who love a good, creepy read. This would make a fantastic read for the annual RIP Challenge (creepy, atmospheric reading challenge held in the fall, for those who might not be informed).
In other news:
A book arrived, yesterday, and I'm sure I'll promptly forget it so I'll just tell you now. It's The Salem Witch Trials by Marilynne K. Roach. I've read several fictional works set in Salem, beginning around 2 years ago, and a friend told me she thought this author's nonfiction work has a particular depth lacking in many other accounts. I'm pretty sure it was on my Paperback Swap wish list from the time I read the first of those fictional accounts, so I'm really excited to finally acquire a copy.
Whoops! Another book just arrived, literally seconds ago: An ARC of The Ghost of Greenwich Village by Lorna Graham. Wahoo! Another ghost story!! I love ghost stories! Many thanks to Ballantine Books for the review copy. It's a July release.
I can't think of any other news. Huh. Well, I guess we'll just stop here. I did finish The Goose Girl, last night. I think it should be particularly encouraging to unpublished writers to find that one editor who rejected The Goose Girl said she found Shannon Hale's writing "stiff, self-conscious and cliche." My opinion? I think her writing is magical, engaging, poetic and enchanting. I couldn't put that sucker down, in other words. I've got a copy of Enna Burning (I think it's the next in the series, although I'm not positive; it just happens to be on my personal challenge shelf) and hope to get to that, soon. I'm grateful to Monday's horrid storm for nudging me to finally read The Goose Girl.