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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Even a cracked pot has a lid that fits.", 16 July 2013
By 
Mary Whipple (New England) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Briefcase (Paperback)
From the opening page of this simply narrated story, author Hiromi Kawakami establishes characters who, in their disarming complexity and iconoclastic behavior, shatter the expectations that many western readers of Japanese novels may have come to expect. Tsukiko Omachi, the thirty-eight-year-old narrator of this novel, describes her meeting with Mr. Harutsuna Matsumoto at a crowded bar after she finishes work. Tsukiko, an aggressive businesswoman, is drinking alone, and the man she meets is not a contemporary trying to pick her up. Accustomed to living her life without interference from anyone else, and not looking for a relationship, she nevertheless joins Matsumoto for dinner. About thirty years older than Tsukiko, Matsumoto taught one of her high school classes years ago, but though he remembers both her first and last names, she remembers him only as "Sensei." She did not enjoy his class, was not a good student, and has no residual affection for him.

Five bottles of sake later, however, she sees him somewhat differently. They have a similar tastes in food, and a similar rhythm, or temperament, and despite the age difference, she feels much more comfortable with him than with friends her own age. They continue to meet at the bar occasionally after that, always by chance, and on occasion they go to his house afterward, though he remains formal. Divorced for fifteen years, Sensei lives in clutter, with mementoes of his past piled up everywhere - including a collection of "railway teapots," used on trains in the 1950s and 1960s, and a large collection of dead batteries which he says he cannot throw away because he "feels [symbolic] pity" for them: "I can't throw them away [at] the moment they die," he remarks. "These batteries have illuminated my lights, signaled my sounds, and run my motors."

Sometimes months pass without Tsukiko and Sensei seeing each other. She sees other people but finds men her own age shallow and uninteresting. Sensei continues the same lonely life he has lived for years. As the seasons change over the course of two years, the relationship changes, not just for Tsukiko but for the reader, too, as the author, with great care, introduces minute changes in their thoughts and behavior. Almost imperceptibly, the two begin to share a bit, though they remain determinedly independent, with neither giving up personal autonomy. Eventually, thanks to the author's careful introduction of thoughtful detail, the two find themselves at a kind of "middle place, perhaps a borderline" in the relationship, or perhaps not.

Though some readers may become frustrated by the excruciatingly slow pace of the relationship, with long months often elapsing between key events, the author's ability to show the minute changes which occur between these two strong and independent people will delight lovers of precise writing and careful development. Sometimes Kawakami accomplishes this magic through her use of obvious symbols, sometimes through quiet observations made by her characters themselves, and sometimes through such precise descriptions of a character's behavior that the reader fills in the blanks and draws his/her own conclusions. The writing is clean - pristine, even - with every word, every event, and every psychological nuance presented clearly. Rarely have I seen a novel of such psychological acuity, and the emotions it evokes, especially toward the character of Sensei, are strong and empathetic. Inspiring in its honesty and integrity, The Briefcase, a major prizewinner in Japan, is already on its way to becoming a literary classic.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Subtle, Poignant and Charming, 9 Aug 2013
By 
Susie B - See all my reviews
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Briefcase (Paperback)
Please note: This novel has been republished as: Strange Weather in Tokyo

Tsukiko, an attractive, young-minded woman in her late thirties, meets an old school teacher of hers, at her local sake bar. She is unable to remember his name, so she calls him 'Sensei' (which, I believe, means 'teacher' in Japanese) and she continues to call him by this name throughout her story. Gradually over a period of weeks and months, Tsukiko and Sensei form a friendship, which slowly develops as they spend their evenings eating and drinking and their days shopping in the local markets. They also join the owner of the sake bar, Satoru, and his cousin, Toru, on an outing to the mountains to collect wild mushrooms, and they even manage to get away for a weekend to visit a spa hotel on an island, where they almost come close to a romantic encounter. Tsukiko and Sensei are essentially solitary people, but they are people who do not really want to be totally alone, and Tsukiko, finding that she is only really happy when she is with Sensei, realizes she is falling in love with her old teacher - but he is so correct in his behaviour towards her that she is finding it difficult to gauge how he really feels about her. And then there is Sensei's ex-wife, an unusual and intriguing woman, who left him years ago - but what happened to her and how does Sensei really feel about her now?

First-person narrated by Tsukiko, and written in spare, simple, uncluttered prose, this short novel shares with the reader the relationship that builds between Sensei and Tsukiko, and is a beautiful, poignant and charming story which is almost dream-like in places. This subtle and delicate novel may not suit if you prefer a fast-paced, plot-driven narrative, but I read this novel in one sitting and was totally drawn into Tsukiko's story of love, loneliness and longing and enjoyed it from start to finish. Hiromi Kawakami is one of the most popular and respected writers of fiction in Japan and is also known as a literary critic and essayist, and reading this very attractively presented and deftly written novel has made me interested in looking at the author's previous book: Manazuru.

4 Stars.
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The Briefcase
The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami (Paperback - 5 April 2012)
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