Enigmatic novella in which the world of Japanese mythology intrudes into the mortal realm.
Readers familiar with Kawakami (The Ten Loves of Nishino, 2019, etc.) will know her alter ego–ish character Tsukiko Omachi and the one-time high school teacher known only as Sensei, who figure in such recent works as Strange Weather in Tokyo. In an afterword, Kawakami writes, elusively, that “the world that exists behind a story is never fully known, not even to the author.” Two worlds, in fact, exist here. The first is Tsukiko’s quiet life, which, on this summer day, the air loud with cicadas, is punctuated by a visit from Sensei, who, as ever, is critical: She doesn’t know how to make somen noodles, her habit of touching her earlobe is off-putting, she’s old enough that the imprint of the tatami mat on her skin doesn’t go quickly away after a nap. “That’s a rude thing to say,” says Tsukiko of Sensei’s last jibe, though she complies with his demand to tell him a story. The one she obliges him with is odd: As a child, she says, she was awakened one night by the clamor of two—well, somethings fighting, not animal, not human, but tengu, “the spirit creatures I had seen in folktale books.” Others see them, too, but ignore them, even as Tsukiko’s mother recounts that in her day it was a fox that followed her around, while some of Tsukiko’s classmates have companion ghosts, badgers, and the like. The most understanding of those classmates, a young girl named Yuko, seems sympathetic enough—until, as Tsukiko notes, the tengu touch her, and “when they did so, the spot on Yuko’s body where they had touched her would sparkle. Like a nighttime parade.” Is Yuko real or another visitor from the spirit world? At once melancholic and joyful, the story satisfies Sensei, the cicadas begin to chirp again, and life goes on, if suffused in strangeness.
Like so much of Kawakami’s work, an elegant mystery that questions reality in the most ordinary of situations.