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KitchenKitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“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 fine with me. Ideally it should be well broken in. Lots of tea towels, dry and immaculate. Where tile catching the light (ting! Ting!)”

Imagine a book that tasted like a drop of vanilla essence floating in dark soy sauce, smelled like clean linen on an unwashed body and felt like a cat purring on your lap during a violent thunderstorm. That is ‘Kitchen‘. It’s so deceptively simple, yet so full of emotion that it had me reeling. Often I would find myself at the end of a sentence, yet like an arrow loosed from a bow the thrust of it would carry and carry, until it travelled straight into my heart. Yoshimoto’s prose is like a time machine that took me back to some very difficult events in my life, and like her protagonists I was surprised that I too found myself in the kitchen when things looked very bleak indeed.

What is it about food that gives us comfort when facing loss on an earth-shattering scale? Following instructions on how to prepare a dish, making a cup of tea or touching the utensils and knowing their individual functions is an odd yet completely rational way of somehow inserting order into a life invaded by chaos. I think Yoshimoto’s idea of the kitchen as a place of domestic healing and love is something I can definitely identify with.

“Me, when I’m utterly exhausted by it all, when my skin breaks out, on those lonely evenings when I call my friends again and again and nobody’s home, then I despise my own life – my birth, my upbringing, everything.” 

There were some really memorable passages that were shockingly accurate about the raw, keening pain of bereavement. Those that have been through it will probably relive that sadness and find comfort in Yoshimoto’s writing, as the only road to recovery is to convince yourself that you are not alone, even though you may feel that way. And so the most heartbroken characters in the book find others who truly know what ‘rock-bottom’ means. For instance, my favourite character Eriko happens to be a transvestite who decides to undergo major surgery and become a woman after losing his wife to terminal cancer. Yoshimoto never once refers to the reasons behind Eriko’s life-altering decision, but it’s extraordinary how she lets us read between the lines and come to conclusions that sometimes the mania of trying to bring a person back may even entail ‘becoming’ that person at all costs. In this edition there is another short story which has a similar character, a high school boy who lost his girlfriend and brother in a car accident, and finds the only way to cope with it is by wearing his girlfriend’s school uniform. All in all, one can make parallel’s between how men and women cope with loss and it seems women are the stronger sex in Yoshimoto’s world.

“At that moment I had a thrilling sharp intuition. I knew it as if I held it in my hands: In the gloom of death that surrounded the two of us, we were just at the point of approaching and negotiating a gentle curve. If we bypassed it, we would split off into different directions. In that case, we would forever remain just friends.” 

‘Kitchen’ therefore is a strange juxtaposition of happiness, grief, laughter and tears that looks at the different ways people cope with carrying on with life despite all the odds. There are those who keep their feelings hidden and smile in the face of adversity while some change gender just to liberate themselves from the pain they feel. From transvestites to high school kids, Yoshimoto’s cast is colourful and varied as we realise that everyone sooner or later, will be touched by death and through it learn to appreciate every day as a blessing.

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