Strangers by Taichi Yamada is touted as a ghost story. Although the story does feature spirits, describing it as a ghost story is oversimplified; this is not a creepy or even remotely scary tale, it is much deeper than that. In this book memories of things past and the loneliness they spawn manifest themselves as spirits, eating at the core of the main character turning him into a shell and shadow of his former self. It is haunting, but not in a creepy or frightening way, it is more about the mental weight of grief and loneliness and how it can cause a physical reaction.
48 year old Harada has been an orphan since he was 12. He is recently divorced, almost estranged from his 19 year old son and feeling some dissatisfaction with his work as a television scriptwriter. He lives alone in his office/apartment in a block overlooking a busy highway. During the day, the block is occupied by office workers, but at night there is only Harada and a strange young woman called Kai who live there. Yamada manages to capture the eeriness of being practically alone in a large building really well.
…This feeling of too much quiet first came over me on a night near the end of July as I sat working at my desk a little after eleven. A chill ran down my spine, and I felt as though I were suspended in the middle of a vast dark void, utterly alone..
Hmm, I’m not sure I would cope with that very well.
One day Harada decides to go back to the run-down district where he grew up. Something draws him to a theatre where he encounters another customer who resembles his late father as the time he died, he feels very uncomfortable about the whole episode, but when invited to leave with the man, he follows. Here begins the re-kindling of Harada’s relationship with his long-dead parents who look the same as they did the day they died in a motorcycle accident. He knows this encounter is somewhat strange, but he is also overjoyed to see them. He has missed his parents, he has been lonely without them and cannot help but visit them regularly.
At about the same time Harada strikes up a relationship with the only other night resident of his building, the mysterious Kai, who is as lonely as he is. As he spends more time with Kai and his parents, he looses focus on his work, but he begins to feel less alone in the world, as though his life might be getting back on track. Little does he realise his problems are only just starting. Yamada adds great twists and suspense just at the point where you wonder where the story is leading. I don’t know if it is a Japanese thing, but the ending is quite downbeat, not in a disappointing way, just leaving you wondering whether Harada could ever be happy again
This book is surreal at times, not least the thought of a grown, sane man entertaining the idea of spending leisure time with his dead parents. However, there is something quite mesmerizing about this it. The prose is sparse but pacey. Yamada builds Harada’s story with authenticity, you can understand how his grief, loneliness and disappointments may lead him to unravel and become slightly unhinged. I haven’t read that much Japanese literature, so I can’t make comparisons, but it reminded me a little in tone of Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of the Hills which I absolutely adored. Strangers is equally as interesting and will keep you wondering long after the last chilling scenes.
I read this book as part of January in Japan hosted by Tony’s Reading List