Paperback reviews: Strange Weather in Tokyo, Before We Met, Mrs Fox, On Anarchism, The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable

 

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Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (trans. Allison Markin Powell) (Portobello £7.99)

This short, quirky love story has a very distinctive, very Japanese sensibility. It’s divided into short, self-contained chapters, each of which could be a freestanding short story. Tsukiko, 40 years old, is a single woman who works in an office in Tokyo, and one day she meets her old teacher – whom she only ever calls “Sensei” – and despite the age difference (Sensei is in his seventies and retired) they become friends. They meet in bars to drink beer and saké, and eat – oh, how they eat! Tuna with fermented soybeans. Edamame. Kimchi. Ayu fish with sour knotweed sauce. Sushimi, miso soup, tofu, octopus. Mushrooms gathered in the woods. Giant prawns and abalone (Tsukiko loves abalone, and at one point vows to herself “I was going to eat a shitload of abalone”). Alongside this love of food there’s a love of the natural world – the moon, the mist, cherry blossom - and some chapters read rather like extended haiku; typical chapter endings are “The moon was once again enveloped in haze”, or “The seagulls were calling in the morning light”, or “There was only the hint of a glow lingering in the western sky”. In fact in one chapter Tsukiko and Sensei sit up all night writing haiku together. They play pachinko, they argue about baseball, they amble through Tokyo’s streets and bars and markets, they go for long walks in the hills. Very slowly and tentatively their friendship develops into something more – yet there is an unspoken, ever-present awkwardness arising from the brute fact that Sensei cannot live as long as Tsukiko.

Allison Markin Powell’s translation is clear and graceful. In its love of the physical, sensual details of living, its emotional directness, and above all in the passion for food, this is somewhat reminiscent of Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen.

*****

Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse (Bloomsbury £7.99)

Sometimes, you just feel like giving yourself up to a thriller – allowing yourself to be consumed by someone else’s fear and uncertainty for a few hours. Lucie Whitehouse’s well-crafted, atmospheric nailbiter will do the job for you. Hannah, a successful thirty-something advertising executive, is swept off her feet when she meets Mark, the English owner of his own software company, through mutual friends in New York. In short order they marry and form a power couple, successful, good-looking, shuttling back and forth between London and New York, as they have business interests in both cities. One night, when Hannah goes to Heathrow to meet Mark’s flight, he doesn’t get off it. When the mystery of his no-show is solved, this only generates further mysteries – and Hannah begins to realise that she knows very little indeed about the man she married... The texture thickens, nagging anxieties turn into full-blown terrors, and after the slow-burn of the first half, the second half is a series of explosive revelations. The sense of place is strong, and though the style verges on chick-lit at times, Whitehouse certainly succeeds in making you worry about the characters.

****

Mrs Fox by Sarah Hall (Faber and Faber £4.99)

Don’t buy this expecting a full-length novel; at 37 pages it is barely a novella. Winner of the 2013 BBC National Short Story Award, it’s a haunting little fable inspired by David Garnett’s Lady into Fox, about a man whose beautiful, enigmatic wife unexpectedly metamorphoses into a fox before his eyes, while out on a walk one day. He still loves her and tries to keep her at home; but this can’t work, she is a wild creature and can’t be shut up between walls... It’s elegantly written, with a strong sense of the natural world, and feels replete with meanings which don’t quite make themselves explicit. It will take little more than half an hour of your time to read, but it will be half an hour well spent.

****

On Anarchism by Noam Chomsky (Penguin £6.00)

A somewhat eclectic collection of pieces by Chomsky, circling around the political philosophy of anarchism. The first essay argues that anarchism is not a detailed social theory, but can be characterised as “libertarian socialism” – the anarchist must be against wage slavery and “the dominion of man over man”. An interview with imaginary interlocutors justifies Chomsky's refusal to sketch out what an anarchist society would actually look like, and explains why an anarchist can and should support state interventions in the short term. Another essay is devoted to explaining, in considerable detail, why liberal historians misrepresent the Spanish Civil War. The essay “Language and Freedom” traces opposition to authoritarian structures to Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau, Kant and Humboldt. The overall effect is tantalising: stimulating ideas, but one wants a full-blown theory, and it's not here. 

***

The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable by Carol Baxter (Oneworld £8.99)

The electric constable was the electric telegraph – a brand-new invention in 1845, used by the Great Western Railway to send a message from Slough to Paddington to apprehend the murder suspect Quaker John Tawell as he got off the train – a kind of precursor of Crippen. This is a fascinating reconsruction of a real historical case, told by Carol Baxter like a novel, with plenty of tension. As well as a portrait of a complex, ambiguous man, it’s a portrait of a nation transformed by the scientific revolution – Tawell would never have been arrested without the telegraph and could not have been charged with murder without the new science of toxicology. You can’t beat a good courtroom scene, and the 50-page account of Tawell’s trial is as good as any I’ve read in a novel.

****

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