One of my friends brought Kitchen back from her study-abroad to Japan in the mid 00s. I was woefully non-diverse in my reading at the time, so my first read of this book in 2008 was mostly vague and unaware. It left no impression. I didn’t even remember I owned it until re-shelving a bunch of books from packing boxes this spring. An MFA and six years of CBR diverse reading under my belt later, this read was a vastly different experience, the most striking of which was I wish I could have read it in Japanese.
The story itself is timeless, unpacking the depths of grief and loneliness between our main character, Mikage, and her friend, Yuichi. Told from Mikage’s point of view, she leads us gently through her experiences losing her only relative, her grandmother, and then later losing Yuichi’s mom to a violent murder, all threaded through with food and cooking. While she and Yuichi try to hold the pieces of their lives together separately, it becomes more and more apparent through Mikage’s eyes, that the only way for them to heal is to lean on each other. Part romance and part philosophy, this book reminded me, in a way, of This is How You Lose the Time War. It’s short and blunt and yet so elegiac and poetic that sometimes the story just soars.
But on the other hand, I’m reading translation and oftentimes, especially the dialogue, felt strange, disjointed, and a little robotic. I have a vague understanding that translating Japanese to English can be very difficult since both their grammar and the built-in inference of their language makes direct translations almost impossible. To that end, I felt like I was missing a whole layer to this story that would have otherwise made it shine. In many ways it seemed that there was a story under the story, and I was too dumb to be able to put the pieces together. I wish I knew Japanese and could re-read Kitchen in its original language to feel the full weight of this novella.
Even so, the story we get in English is still beautiful, and I enjoyed being in Mikage’s head for 100 pages.