Stories Anchored in Place, From Japan to the U.S.-Mexican Border

By Brenda Peynado

PEOPLE FROM MY NEIGHBORHOOD
Stories
By Hiromi Kawakami
Translated by Ted Goossen
159 pp. Soft Skull. Paper, $15.95.

In this stunning series of 36 flash stories, Kawakami uses one unnamed neighborhood in Japan and its recurring characters to show us a particular vision of humanity — one filled with equal parts fable and the everyday. It’s a vision that astounds even as it shrugs, the stories soaring to the grandness of princesses and world domination, but also descending to children squabbling inside a sandbox and the simple powerlessness of the neighborhood dog. In this community, a sister can speak to the dead, a karaoke bar turns drug den turns haven for the master of the world, some babies never age, doppelgängers steal each other’s husbands, and gods and aliens visit. The children at the book’s center turn out strange, fierce, whimsical.

Kawakami’s style traffics in brevity, giving us images distilled to their core, sentences that go directly to the heart, and the narrative command to deliver entire lives within one sweeping breath. Her characters leap off the page. The clarity of her prose only serves to deepen the real mysteries, the hidden detritus of human life. In “The Magic Spell,” when two friends overhear a girl who recently returned from America say the word “oops” again and again, they interpret the unfamiliar word as a chant they can use to curse or to bless. When another narrator asks a possibly supernatural child why he followed her home one day and stayed for decades, he replies, “It’s a secret.” The surreal turns into something powerful in Kawakami’s hands, all the more devastating because it escapes our full understanding.

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