Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Strangers by Taichi Yamada

Strangers by Taichi Yamada
Copyright 2003 - Faber & Faber
First published 1987
203 pages

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.

My review:

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.

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  1. I'm not sure about this one - when I read creepy, I like it to keep me on the edge of my seat.

  2. Kathy,

    It's a page-turner, in my opinion, but it's not fast-paced. That sounds so wrong! But, he really builds up the questions beautifully and I couldn't wait to find out what was going on. Then, toward the end it's a total home run. Even though I had a good idea what was going to happen and what was going on, he still surprised me.

  3. Thanks for the review - I don't really like creepy - I'll stick with my cozies.

  4. This book sounds so unusual and wonderful! I find that a lot of Asian ghost stories are rather spare and a little slower than you average American ghost story, but that doesn't bother me in the least. I am adding this book to my wish list after reading your wonderful review. Thanks!

  5. I really like the sound of Strangers! I like creepy, atmospheric, and supernatural.

    Isn't Goose Girl a great book? I love this re-imagining of the fairy tale.

  6. Ann,

    I love creepy and am not a big fan of cozies! It's good to stick with what you love. :)


    This is my first Asian ghost story and I absolutely loved it. "Spare" is a very apt descriptive term. If you have some other recommendations, I'd love to hear them!


    I think you'd really like Strangers. It would really be perfect for Carl's fall challenge (the only challenge I'm even considering, this year) but it was calling to me so insistently that I couldn't make myself wait till fall!

    Oh, yes, I thought The Goose Girl was wonderful. I haven't read the original fairy tale, so now I need to hunt down my big book of Grimm's fairy tales. I think Shannon Hale's version is a keeper -- one of those rare stories I liked so much that I already know I'll want to reread it, someday.

  7. I love the cover. I want.

  8. Care,

    Isn't that a great cover? I forgot to write my "cover thoughts" but I think it's perfect. Sadly, I've already passed this one on to another reader. I need to get a better grip on your taste!!!

  9. I love a good ghost story so I may have to pick this one up!

    Life by Candlelight

  10. Amy,

    It's an unusual ghost story. I really enjoyed the different style and will be looking for more Asian ghost stories for the change of pace. I hope you love it!

  11. Excellent review Nancy! I remember some other friends mentioning this book and it's been on my radar. I love a good ghost story so I'll have to keep it in mind for the RIP Challenge.

  12. Iliana,

    I must have read about Strangers *somewhere* but I have no idea who recommended it. I thought it was a great read. I'm glad I didn't save it till fall, as I'd originally intended. I like to mix up my reading and it was fun throwing in a good, creepy read! :)

  13. I wanted to read this for my own Japanese literature challenge 4; guess I'll have to add it to my JLC5 which starts in July. I've heard nothing but good about it. Glad you enjoyed it, too, if that's the right word.

  14. Bellezza,

    I think you'll like it. I definitely recommend adding it to your next challenge. Yes, enjoyed is the right word. Creepy can be fun, even if it makes your little heart go pitty-pat. :)

  15. Just finished this novel, and you're right: I loved it. Hard to write about without giving away too much. Yamada does bring up lots of questions! I'm considering now if one of the things he's saying is that his 'hero' could only get along with the dead. Or, it could be that by bringing the ghosts of the dead back into his life, Hideo is able to gain some healing. Not sure, as with so many Japanese novels, we are left open to many interpretations. Great novel, though, and so good for the RIP VI. Off to add your link to my review...


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