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Hisham Matar–THE RETURN

Note: Author Hisham Matar was WINNER of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/ Autobiography in 2017 and was also WINNER of the Rathbones Folio Prize and WINNER of the Jean Stein PEN America Award for this memoir.

“Declarative statements such as “He is dead” are not precise. My father is both dead and alive. I do not have a grammar for him. He is in the past, present, and future. Even if I had held his hand, and felt it slacken, as he exhaled his last breath, I would still, I believe, every time I refer to him, pause to search for the right tense. I suspect many men who have buried their fathers feel the same…I live, as we all live, in the aftermath.”—Hisham Matar, on how it feels when a kidnapped parent disappears, never seen again.

cover matar In this memoir, Hisham Matar at last tells his own story and the aftermath of his father’s disappearance and detention at the Abu-Salim Prison, one of the most vicious prisons in the world under Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. In his two novels prior to this memoir, he has dealt with some of the issues from a fictional point of view.  His debut novel from 2006, In The Country of Men, tells the story of a young boy living in Tripoli, Libya, while his father works with the resistance to oust Qaddafi. With a mother who drowns her sorrows in alcohol, and a father who is often away, the boy grows up lonely and lost. Matar’s second novel, The Anatomy of a Disappearance, tells more of his own story, though the author is not yet ready to reveal all the specific horrors. Here in an unnamed country which greatly resembles Iraq, he once again tells of a young lost boy whose mother dies when the boy is nine and living in exile in Egypt with his family. When he is fourteen, he goes to England to boarding school, and his father is mysteriously abducted by another power. Taught to keep a stiff upper lip, the boy has literally no one with whom he can share his feelings, and he receives no information about his father, either then or later, growing up in a netherworld without parents to help him and without the ability to ask for help.

author photo matarIn this memoir, Hisham wastes no time, going straight to the heart of his life and telling the whole story, showing clearly the effects of the very real traumas which he has never fully explored, and the fears and insecurities which have dominated his life as a result. As the memoir opens in March, 2012, forty-one-year-old Matar, and Diana, a photographer, who have been living in New York, are at the airport in Cairo, waiting to take off for Benghazi. He is nervous because he and his family left Libya for exile in 1979, and he has never returned. His father, Jaballa Matar, worked for the Libyan government as first secretary to the Libyan Mission to the United Nations in 1970, and Hisham was born that year in New York. After three years, he, his father, mother, and older brother Ziad, returned to Libya, as Qaddafi was coming to power. Jaballa Matar, who opposed many of Qaddafi’s policies in favor of the resistance in the late 1970s, fell victim to Qaddafi’s ambitions. With their lives endangered, the family escaped from Libya for Egypt in the late 1970s, and Hisham did much of his early schooling there.

Abu-Salim Prison, where a massacre of 1270 prisonoers took place in 1996.

Abu-Salim Prison, where a massacre of 1270 prisoners took place in 1996.

While in Cairo, the family sets up the situation with which Hisham must deal for the rest of his life. His father, in Egypt, is obsessed with the past and the future and with returning to help remake Libya. His mother is devoted to the present. When Jabbar Matar is kidnapped in 1990, while the family is in Egypt, they believe that he is being kept hidden in Egypt. It is only later, after they receive a letter from him in 1993, that they find out he has been imprisoned in Abu-Salim Prison in Benghazi, famous for its horrors, for three years, and that the Egyptian military participated in his kidnapping. In the meantime, his brother has had to try to escape a kidnapping attempt at his boarding school in Switzerland, and he, himself, has been at school in England under an assumed name. No one there, except for one faculty member knows who he really is and what his background is. Not only is his father a mystery, but he, himself, has become one, too.

Hope rises that a mass grave outside the prison will reveal the fates of the 1270 massacred men, but hopes are later dashed.

Hope rises that a mass grave outside the prison will reveal the identities of the 1270 massacred men.

As stories leak out about Abu-Salim and the tortures inflicted on its inmates, Hisham becomes haunted by what his father is/was living through during his captivity. Qaddafi’s policy has always been that when one member of a family offends Qaddafi, the entire family is responsible, and four members of Matar’s immediate family have also been seized and imprisoned in Abu-Salim. Occasionally, one of them is able to smuggle a letter out, and Jabbar manages to get three letters out, up to 1993. After this, however, nothing is learned, no matter how hard Hisham works to find out information. He does hear that a former prisoner was able to talk with him in 2002, after a massacre of 1270 prisoners took place at the prison in 1996. With his hopes high, Hisham seeks out the man – and everyone else he can think of – for further information.

Matar seeks out Titian's "The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence," in Italy, after he returns from his visit to Libya.

Matar seeks out Titian’s “The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence,” in Italy, after he returns from his visit to Libya.  Click here for enlargement.

Matar’s story is enhanced by constant flashbacks which broaden the scope and the cast of characters, making them come more fully alive. The past history of Libya and its connections with Italy, and later Fascist Italy under Mussolini, reveal the genocide of the country’s tribal populations even in the 1920s, as tens of thousands die, a circumstance which makes the country’s death toll under Qaddafi seem to fit the country’s pattern of murder. Libya’s relationship with Tony Blair’s England while Qaddafi is in power, comes under close scrutiny here, and Hisham Matar clearly believes that the attempt of Blair to form some kind of relationship with the dictator made circumstance worse, not better. In the meantime, Matar is busy using his own connections to try to find out the fate of his father, one way or the other. In 2003, he writes to Seif Qaddafi, son of Libya’s president, and over a period of many months, he is able to gain some new information. In the process, he is able to secure the release of some family members. With no news regarding his father, Matar is forced to form his own conclusions, and in the process, he learns much about himself and the compromises he himself may be willing to make or not make. This powerful memoir treats the subjects of memory and loss, innocence and guilt, power and vulnerability, and ultimately love and hope, giving the reader new insights into how one man eventually manages to cope with his past, present, and future.


Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.revistaarcadia.com/

A view of Abu-Salim Prison may be found on http://www.bbc.com/

More information about the possible site of a mass grave behind Abu-Salim Prison may be found here:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

Titian’s “The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence” became a destination point for Hisham Matar upon his departure from Libya at the end of the novel.  Click here for enlargement.  http://www.dailymail.co.uk

REVIEW. Autobiography/Memoir, Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Libya, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Hisham Matar
Published by: Random House
Date Published: 04/04/2017
ISBN: 978-0812994827
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note: WINNER of the Asahi Prize for his contributions to Japanese culture and RECIPIENT of the National Order of Japan in 1949. Tanizaki was the first Japanese to receive honorary membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1962.

“I am going to select from among all the maids who’ve worked in the Chikura household…who made an unforgettable impression….I’ll try to describe them accurately but, after all, my intention is to produce a novel, so I may embroider things a little. Please bear this in mind; it would be a terrible insult to Raikichi and to the people who served as models for the other characters if you were to take the events recorded here as exactly true from start to finish.”

cover tanizaki maidsBeginning this novel in 1937, Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965), one of Japan’s most accomplished novelists, takes a new direction in this novel, his last. Here he describes the lives and cultures of a succession of Japanese house maids in a financially successful household. The novel’s time frame, 1937 – 1962, is obviously a time in which Japan faced some of its most dramatic changes and these changes, as described by Tanizaki, were at least as dramatic sociologically as they were historically during this period. The class system was being dismantled, local languages and dialects were changing, movement from the countryside to the city and back was becoming relatively common, and a sense of independence among young women was emerging. Tanizaki saw it all, and while a previous novel, The Makioka Sisters, focused on those who lived comfortable lives, this novel focuses on those who helped make the lives of those people as comfortable as they were. These were the people who saw and dealt with the greatest changes – the maids who lived “below stairs,” as translator Michael P. Cronin describes them in his Afterword.

tanizaki photo

According to the translator, this “novel” is also largely autobiographical in its descriptions of main characters Raikichi and Sanko Chikura, whose lives parallel those of the author and his wife, and whose maids, as Tanizaki himself explains in the quotation at the beginning of this review, are used as real models for the characters here. This change of focus and subject results in a dramatic change of style and tone which will be obvious to anyone who has read any of Tanizaki’s earlier work. Some will question whether this is actually a novel at all, since there is no real plot, and the chronological episodes which provide the action here concern themselves with a variety of characters, some of whom disappear with little warning. The conclusion, which illustrates the great social changes over twenty-five years and a new role for Chikura, and possibly Tanizaki, does bring closure regarding the lives of several maids, though the sociological changes and their illustrations make the conclusion feel more academic than personal or emotional.

The Heian Shrine in Kyoto during the Cherry Blossom Festival. Raikichi and Sanho attend this.

The Heian Shrine in Kyoto during the Cherry Blossom Festival. Raikichi and Sanho attend this.

When the book opens in 1937, the author describes social changes even in the use of names, with the maids no longer being called “maids” or being called by their given names. Instead they are referred to as “helpers,” and use another name with “san” attached to the end. Often they use what we would call a first name with “ko” attached – “Sana-ko.” They do not use real names because their positions as servants might be insulting to their family name. Raikichi is fifty and his wife Sanko is thirty-three as the book begins. Her daughter Mutsuko from a previous marriage lives with them, as does her younger sister, Nioko. Though there are only four people living in their house, they always have at least two or three maids, and sometimes as many as five or six, a situation Raikichi justifies by describing the family’s women as “pampered young ladies who had grown up in luxury, and they couldn’t have managed without at least that many servants.”  He is a kindly employer who likes to have these maids around the house they make it “bright and lively,” and he rarely has to dismiss anyone.  Some of the girls who become engaged even have their engagement parties at his house when their families live far away.

Kuni is described as speaking standard Japanese fluently and having a pale face "like a Kokeshi doll."

Kuni is described as speaking standard Japanese fluently and having a pale face “like a Kokeshi doll.”

Uniting most of the domestic episodes is Hatsu, whose family is from a farming and fishing village. Hatsu, described as “not attractive,” does have “good teeth,” a wide mouth, and a strong jaw. “And though Raikichi hadn’t seen her naked, her bust, according to daughter Mutsuko, was “better than Marilyn Monroe’s.” At this point the maids still wear kimono, though a switch to western dress takes place after the war. They all speak dialects when they first arrive, not standard Japanese, and are often incomprehensible to Raikichi, and Sanko. During the war, which is barely mentioned here (with no mention at all regarding the atomic bombs), the Chikura family, like Tanizaki himself, moves from Katsuyama to other houses in Atami and Kyoto, and while some of the maids go with them, some must return to their families to help with the work there. Hatsu proves to be an expert at bartering for rice during the war, and new maids arrive. One, Kuni, speaks standard Japanese fluently and has a pale face “like a Kokeshi doll.”

Takamine Hideko, a famous movie star, is the obvious model for Takane Hidako, for whom one maid works.

Takamine Hideko, a famous movie star, is the obvious model for Takane Hidako, for whom one maid works here.

Following the war, a number of the maids return home to seek marriages, and the love story of a maid named Gin, her boyfriend Mitsuo, and a rival for his affections, Yuri (Lily), unfolds here in detail. Tanizaki uses this opportunity to describe issues of gambling addiction, how families and friends respond to it to try to save the victims, trial marriages, and even, eventually, a maid getting a job with a famous movie star and becoming arrogant. Despite all these episodes, the “novel” feels more sociological than dramatic.  There is no real plot. The three novels I have already read by Tanizaki – Some Prefer NettlesA Cat, A Man, and Two Women and Devils in Daylight reflect Tanizaki’s high awareness of drama and how to create and develop it through plotting, along with his psychological astuteness, his dark and ironic humor, and even his eroticism.  In this novel, which was published in installments in a Japanese newspaper in 1962, his purpose seems to have been, instead, to seize the opportunity to talk to his readers about the changes to Japanese society that he has noted over the past twenty-five years. While this is often intriguing and even fascinating, new readers to Tanizaki will want to start with one of the other Tanizaki novels previously reviewed on this site to get the real flavor of his writing.


Photos, in order:  The author photo appears on http://www.edmundyeo.com/

Raikichi and his wife make a visit to the Heian Shrine in Kyoto during Cherry Blossom Festival on one of their trips there.  http://zekkeijapan.com/

One maid has a pale face like that of a Kokeshi doll:  https://www.amazon.com/

Actress Takamine Hideko is the model for Takane Hidako, an actress for whom one of the maids goes to work.  https://www.pinterest.com/

REVIEW. Autobiography/Memoir, Historical, Japan, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Junichiro Tanizaki
Published by: New Directions
Date Published: 04/25/2017
ISBN: 978-0811224925
Available in: Hardcover

“McSorley’s has the power to transport any of us to whatever New York era feels most like home. That’s because it doesn’t matter if a person first ordered two and two in 1967 or 2000, or if it takes two weeks or thirty years for that customer to come back. Whenever he returns, McSorley’s will be the same.”

cover mscorley'sTry, for a moment, to imagine going into the attic of a house occupied by members of your family for one hundred sixty-three years. Old paintings, documents, photographs, small sculptures, war-time hats and helmets, and all manner of other memorabilia fill it from floor to ceiling, and everything there reminds you of the major events which have affected you and those closest to you. Few of us are lucky enough to have such a family attic, but McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village of New York City has acquired that status for thousands of customers who have visited it for over a century and a half. Established in 1854 and billed as “the oldest bar in New York city,” McSorley’s, an Irish ale house, serves only dark and light ale, never wine or hard liquor. Owned and operated by only three families during its entire history, McSorley’s has existed continuously at the same location in the East Village since its inception, and many of its employees have been there for decades.

rafebartholomew_081814Rafe Bartholomew, the author-son of Geoffrey “Bart” Bartholomew, grew up at McSorley’s, where his father is still working as a bartender after forty-five years. Rafe himself began “working” there for fun when he was five or six, his father often bringing him for a few hours on Saturday mornings to help polish the brass, scrub tables, or clean away the greasy gunk that accumulates around and behind some of the memorabilia. On these Saturdays, Rafe had a chance to hang out with grownups and get to know many of the unusual characters with whom his father worked. When he grew older, he worked there as a casual chef and eventually as a waiter and assistant to his father. He knows McSorley’s from the inside, and as he tells the story of his relationships there, especially with his father, he is also telling the story of a neighborhood gathering place, a culture, and a piece of American history. His background as a journalist and fan of fine writing allows him to communicate directly with a wide readership, and his love and respect for his father and his co-workers make his story of McSorley’s insightful and very real.

By Leonard J. DeFrancisci

By Leonard J. DeFrancisci

Both Rafe and his father Bart, who almost became an English teacher, appreciate the McSorley mystique which has attracted famous people from the arts. Poet e. e. cummings wrote a poem about McSorley’s, Dylan Thomas and Eugene O’Neill spent time there, Woody Guthrie sang there in the 1940s, and artist John Sloan painted five scenes of McSorley’s in the years just before World War I.   History buffs appreciate the fact that Abraham Lincoln stopped there in 1860 as he was campaigning for office, and an authentic WANTED poster for John Wilkes Booth from April 1865 is displayed on the wall following Lincoln’s assassination. Houdini left a pair of handcuffs there, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a letter from the White House, and a copy of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Babe Ruth upon his retirement from baseball appears behind the bar. Other photos of John F. Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh, and Alfred E. Newman share a wall with the hats of firemen from 9/11 and helmets from World Wars I and II.

Right side, dust-covered wishbones over the bar. Photo by Lee Nelson.

On the right side of the photo, dust-covered wishbones are seen between the gaslights over the bar. Photo by Lee Nelson. Click to enlarge.

One story for which McSorley’s is particularly famous concerns the wishbones that have been hanging on a metal bar connecting two gas lamps for a hundred years. Legend has it that in 1917, just after Thanksgiving, a group of newly enlisted New York soldiers brought their Thanksgiving wishbones to McSorley’s and hung them between the gas lamps for good luck as they left to fight in World War I. After the war the survivors returned and reclaimed their wishbones; many remain unclaimed. Additional wishbones were added during World War II and other US wars. As a sign of respect for all the men whose wishbones became memorials, McSorley’s never allowed them to be disturbed, though dust built up and coated them over the years. In 2010, however, New York City began requiring the annual health inspection of all bars and restaurants in the city. The inspectors, of course, found the wishbones, directly over the bar with their long strings of dust, to be a health hazard. To prevent problems, Matty Maher, the bar’s owner, went to the bar alone at 3:00 a.m. one night to clean each wishbone individually and replace it exactly as it had been, maintaining the feeling of trust, he felt, between the lost soldiers and McSorley’s and preserving them as a lasting memorial, albeit one without dust.

Front room bar.

Front room bar, with female bartender.

A high point of the book is the strong relationship between Rafe Bartholomew and his dad, a story of love and good humor, especially during Rafe’s mother’s two difficult bouts of cancer, fifteen years apart. The Bartholomews, father and son, returned to their work within a week after she died, discovering that their almost automatic responses to the needs of the job allowed them some respite from their overwhelming sadness. Their care for each other was both touching and memorable, a feeling which they and the rest of the management and staff have also extended to others who live near the ale house, hangers-on and down-and-outers who appear at the door at closing time. Hiring some to work as night watchmen or gofers, and others to do odd jobs that no one else wants, in exchange for $10 – $20, McSorley’s allows these people to earn some money, enjoy a meal, and have the chance to socialize.

Be Good or Be Gone, the motto of McSorley's. above the motto by the pipe from the stove, are the handcuffs from Houdini.

Be Good or Be Gone, the motto of McSorley’s. above the icebox.  Above the motto by the pipe from the stove, are the handcuffs from Houdini. Click to see more photos.

Despite its many episodes of humor, its quirky personalities, the loving relationship between the Bartholomew father and son, and its revelations about this old ale house, the book does have a down side. Far too much time is spent on descriptions of the men’s bathroom, the difficulties of keeping it clean, the detailing of why sawdust is a feature on all the floors, and the crude comments and language the men make to each other, especially at the beginning. The fact that McSorley’s was a men-only bar until 1970, when it had to be sued before it would admit women, suggests that these details may reflect the stubborn male behavior of many of its patrons, and the learned ability of McSorley’s to tolerate it.  Ultimately, I am reminded of a college professor who once said, “The Realists called a spade a spade. The Naturalists called it a goddam shovel.” Realism regarding McSorley’s is a good thing. The shovels of naturalism were unnecessary here.


“Look, Ma, two hands!”

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo is from http://sa.kapamilya.com/

The facade of McSorley’s by Leonard J. De Francisci appears on https://commons.wikimedia.org

The bar photo showing the dusty wishbones, by Lee Nelson, may be found on http://www.inetours.com/

The cluttered bar in the front room, with its female bartender, is from http://sideways.nyc/

The picture showing the “Be Good or Be Gone” motto above the icebox is from https://www.6sqft.com   A large collection of outstanding photos from McSorley’s appears on this site.

The sign of an excellent bartender at McSorley’s is how many mugs he can carry in his two hands.  Here a bartender shows he can carry an amazing twenty mugs.  Carrying them is one thing, but the weight of them is something else again!  http://bachelor10.com/venue/41/new-york-city/mcsorleys-old-ale-house

REVIEW. Historical, Non-fiction, Social and Political Issues, US Regional,
Written by: Rafe Bartholomew
Published by: Little, Brown
Date Published: 05/09/2017
ISBN: 978-0316231596
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note: This novel was WINNER of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2016, and WINNER of the Desmond Eliot Prize for best debut novel published that year in the UK.

“Look, Father. There are a lot of things I’m sorry for…it feels like I’ve been sorry all my life. First I was supposed to be sorry for having a child out of wedlock….I went away to have the baby and then I gave him up as my penance… Your kind had my mother and father’s ears; I didn’t stand a chance. So if many, many years later my son has found me and brought me home, only he has turned into a thug and my hands are so shaky I accidentally kill fellas, don’t the amends I’ve already made mean anything to the Man Above?”—Maureen Phelan to priest in Confession.

cover glorious heresiesThe prose of Irish debut novelist Lisa McInerney is so musical that even the horrors of characters living barebones existences in the drug-infested underworld of Cork begin to feel engaging. Here McInerney creates families and friends, enemies and predators, and lovers and their betrayers as they all try to survive the forces working against them. Their possibilities of flourishing within this fraught atmosphere are practically nil.  Many characters use drugs and alcohol to make their lives more bearable, and most still have hope for a future in which they can find some level of happiness. These characters come to life – and in some cases, death – within a society which exists on its own terms, a dark society outside the dominantly Catholic mainstream, with its own rules about what is right, what is tolerated, and what requires repentance and/or punishment. Many of McInerney’s characters are aware of the ironies in their lives, as Maureen Phelan’s confession to a priest at the beginning of this review reveals, and her intentional humor in places throughout the novel provides respite for readers who might begin to weary of the sad, inner battles her characters face.

author photoThe first part of the novel establishes the several different stories which will develop and overlap within the action, starting with a teenage love story which develops throughout the novel and unites some of McInerney’s plot lines and themes. Fifteen-year-old Ryan Cusack, being brought up by his alcoholic father, finds himself receiving the attentions of classmate Karine D’Arcy, someone who has been in school with him for three years. They believe they are meant for each other and that they are in love. A few paragraphs later, a new character, Maureen Phelan, a fifty-nine-year-old “slip of a whip,” has just killed an intruder at her apartment, something that she does not think much about – after all, he was an intruder – but the murder was messy, and she wants help getting her floor cleaned. Telephoning her son Jimmy, described quickly by the author as someone who “sells fags and dope and cans of lager,” and who has also killed cops, she demands that he replace her floor and remove the body, a job he arranges quickly.

Pregnant unmarried girls, line Maureen, in her day, were often assigned to the Magdalen Laundries, places where they could have their babies, put them up for adoption, and then work doing laundry for the county.

Pregnant unmarried girls, like Maureen, in her day, were often assigned to the Magdalen Laundries, places where they could work doing laundry for the county, have their babies, and then put them up for adoption.

New characters enter the narrative to set up further action. Georgie, who ran away from home at fifteen, loved Robbie O’Donovan for six years, but the relationship eventually soured and he has now left her.  Alone, and with no future, she has become a prostitute with a bad drug habit. In another shift of the story line, the person hired to fix Maureen Phelan’s blood-soaked floor is Tony Cusack, father of fifteen-year-old Ryan. Tony recognizes the person killed in Maureen’s house, a situation which could lead to problems if crime boss Jimmy Phelan were to learn that Tony knows who the victim is. As these story lines begin to interconnect and switch back and forth among the characters, their inner thoughts are revealed. All have goals but are also frustrated by both outside circumstances and circumstances of their own making. For some characters, it is too late to reach their goals; for young Ryan Cusack, there may be hope. Though Ryan’s father seems intent on ruining Ryan’s life, the school headmaster wants to help him. Rapidly changing and alternating scenes draw the characters together, and carefully spaced short “interludes” throughout keep the reader abreast of events as they happen in the relationship between Ryan and Karine as the rest of the novel is unfolding on a grander scale.

Another character is sent to the harsh St. Patrick's Institution for nine months.

One person is sent to the harsh St. Patrick’s Institution, a prison, for nine months.

The author’s focus on developing scenes which convey characters in all their flaws and foibles through lively dialogue and action makes this novel of relationships far more than the melodrama it might have been. Themes of right and wrong coincide with the ideas of sin and redemption through punishment and atonement for some characters like Maureen Phelan. Civil law, Catholic religious law, Christianity at its loving heart, and the intentions and the rules of institutions run by well-meaning, do-gooders overlap throughout.  Part II of the novel concerns itself with some of these overlaps as seen in the various rehabilitation facilities to which some characters are sent while others end up in St. Patrick’s Institution, a violent jail run by the state. Still others decide to take justice into their own hands, with dire results. Throughout, Maureen Phelan keeps the reader smiling at her uninhibited behavior and attitudes, even as that behavior often horrifies. The novel develops further in new sections, and as time passes and the characters’ lives are brought up to date over the course of three years, the reader sees the complexity of all these issues.

Another character goes to detox in the countryside, a place run by well-meaning evangelicals.

Another character goes to detox in the countryside, a place run by well-meaning evangelicals.

As Lisa McInerney shows in this involving and thematically complex novel, the economic problems in Ireland, the well-publicized complications created by the sexual crimes of the clergy, and the resulting decline of the church’s influence have left swathes of needy people with few personal or social resources. Her ardent and uninhibited approach to her narrative makes the reader more dramatically aware of the inner conflicts faced by these ordinary people as their social supports disappear and their religious supports are shown to be flawed. Yet McInerney’s picture of Ireland, specifically Cork, is so full of energy – and toughness – that one must believe that Maureen Phelan, for all her craziness, is closer to being honest and good than the clergyman to whom she is confessing. As she recalls her unwed pregnancy, she asserts, “I was lucky, Father. I was only sent away. A decade earlier and where would I have been? I might have died in your asylums, me with the smart mouth. I killed one man but you would have killed me in the name of your god, wouldn’t you? How many did you kill? How many lives did you destroy with your morality and your Seal of Confession and your lies?…I know I’m sorry. What about you?”


Yet another character keeps a scapular nearby, reminding herself that “Whosoever dies wearing this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.”

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo is found on http://www.ourdailyread.com/

The Magdalen Laundries were an option for Maureen Phelan, in her day, a place for pregnant, unmarried girls where they worked for the county doing laundry, while awaiting the birth of their babies, which were then put up for adoption.  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

The cruel St. Patrick’s Institution, recently closed, was another place where another character here spends nine months.  http://www.thejournal.ie/

Detox facilities, sought by yet another character, were often run by evangelical Christians in the countryside, where there was no real escape.  https://www.imagine.ie/

A scapular,  sometimes worn by devout Christians, reminds the wearer that redemption is possible, even for the worst of sinners.  One character here keeps one at her side all the time.  https://www.catholiccompany.com/

REVIEW. Literary, Social and Political Issues, Psychological Study, Ireland
Written by: Lisa McInerney
Published by: Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Crown Publishing
Date Published: 08/16/2016
ISBN: 978-0804189064
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note: Hiromi Kawakami was WINNER of the Tanizaki Prize, Japan’s highest literary prize, in 2001, for her novel called, in English, The Briefcase.  She was also the WINNER of the Akutagawa Prize for the best literary story published that year.

“I don’t dislike Mr. Nakano, I thought to myself. There are plenty of people in the world I don’t dislike, some of whom I almost like; on the other hand, I almost hate some of those whom I don’t dislike, too. But how many people did I truly love? I wondered, as I clasped Takeo’s hand lightly.”—Hitomi Suganuma, main speaker.

coverAuthor Hiromi Kawakami, for all her prizes and prize nominations, also wins hearts and creates smiles with her off-beat and surprising novels. With an ability to create characters who are sometimes so ordinary that they become interesting, she puts her characters into new situations in which they, with their limited personal and emotional resources, live their lives in full sight of us all. Unpretentious and casual, her main character here, Hitomi Suganuma works as a cashier at the Nakano Thrift Shop, where she sometimes has only half a dozen customers a day. She has plenty of time to observe those around her, to think about their lives, and to contemplate her own future. Fun and funny, the novel that results is almost as unfocused as Hitomi is, lying halfway between a novel and a collection of interrelated short stories, and it all works.  The character portraits are unforgettable as author Kawakami brings them to life in ways that will surprise those readers who think of the Japanese as formal and reserved. The characters here are unafraid to say what they think, to be sexy and uninhibited while remaining polite, and to be independent in their lifestyles.

author photoMain character Hitomi Suganuma is in her mid-twenties, a woman alienated from her mother, with whom she has little to no contact, and, having broken up with the only boyfriend she ever had, her personal goal now is to find someone new. The only candidate at the thrift shop is Takeo, who acts as a pickup and delivery person, hauling merchandise around for Mr. Nakano. Bullied in school, years ago, Takeo is missing part of his little finger, the result of a bully slamming his finger in an iron door, something which concerned Mr. Nakano initially, since “finger shortening” is a practice of the yakuza, the Japanese mob, which is involved in the sale of used goods, primarily antiques. When Takeo dropped out of school six months from graduation, his parents paid little attention, preferring to believe that this was a lifestyle choice and a result of his lack of discipline. Now working at Mr Nakano’s shop, Takeo considers Hitomi to be “complex” because she likes books. Mr. Nakano, in his fifties, has been in business for about twenty-five years. He has had three marriages and has three children, including a six-month-old baby, yet he appears to have a girlfriend on the side, a conclusion Takeo has made based on the number of unexplained trips he makes to “the bank.”


A  Daruma doll, a staple at Japanese thrift shops.

These three spend much time together at the thrift shop, often eating meals and drinking beer together, near or after closing time, and they form a sort of loose family. Hitomi has no social life, Takeo has broken with his girlfriend and has no after-work life, and Mr. Nakano is happy to have a reason to stay away from his own home and spend more time at “the bank.” They take care of each other, and when an older man, Tadokoro, starts spending time inside the shop when Hitomi is alone there, and then wants her to buy some erotic photos, Mr. Nakano takes action.  Mr. Nakano’s sister Masayo, in her mid-fifties, is also often present, though she disappears at length when she is tending to her lover, a situation which Hitomi finds fascinating and about which she sometimes asks personal questions of Masayo regarding sex. She uses a bonus she receives from Masayo to take Takeo out drinking with her.


A Japanese nodding figure, a hundred years old. Note that there is a small piece of metal that goes through the neck and rests on the shoulders of the figure to allow it to nod when the head is touched.

With these simple characters and their obvious personality quirks and curiosities, author Kawakami builds her story, and she has no qualms about having her characters casually raise the most personal questions about sex, impotence, love-making, love hotels, and betrayals of love. Her characters will say anything. As the novel evolves and becomes more complex through scenes that could also be short stories, for which the author has also won prizes, the author has ample opportunity to move around in time and place without having to have much in the way of transitional scenes to connect one chapter with another. The overall story of long-term relationships moves forward with plenty of complications and flashbacks and flashforwards. Guiding all the action are individual tales of love and rejection and the strong characterizations of Mr. Nakano, Hitomi, Takeo, Masayo, and assorted minor characters.

The goryeo celadon bowl from Korea was far more valuable than what Mr. Nakano sold in his shop, creating a more complicated situation when one arrived at the shop.

The Goryeo celadon bowl from Korea (918 – 1392) was far more valuable than what Mr. Nakano sold in his shop, creating a more complicated situation when one arrived at the shop, unexpectedly.

Ultimately, time catches up with the Nakano Thrift Shop, and Mr. Nakano begins to participate in on-line auctions and sales. Questions arise as to what he might be planning for the business and what that would mean for the employees. The author solves the mysteries for the reader by writing a last chapter that takes place two years ahead in time, showing the future. A delight to read at the same time that it raises questions about relationships, personalities, and the roles of strong women, the novel works because the author defies conventions by creating characters who are so ordinary – universal, even – that they could represent any of us in their desires for happiness and satisfaction. There are no big plot twists here, just as there are usually few of those in our real lives, and a grand finale would be out of place in a book about such people leading conventional lives. Like the thrift shop itself, with its myriad little objects “found in a typical household from the 1960s and later,” none of which are of great value, the experiences which the characters here share with us are little events, which become important for their cumulative, not individual, importance in the characters’ lives. Ultimately, the reader sees how much like the world of the thrift shop real life is, “a strange world, in which whatever was new and neat and tidy diminished in value,” while messy real life is what matters.

ALSO by Hiromi Kawakami, reviewed here:  Tanizaki Prize WINNER,  THE BRIEFCASE

Photos, in order:  The author’s picture is from http://rereadinglives.blogspot.com/

The Japanese nodding figure is from a personal snapshot.

The Daruma doll, common in Japanese thrift shops, may be found on https://www.goodsfromjapan.com

Korean celadon from the Goryeo dynasty (918 – 1392) is too valuable to appear at a thrift shop.   This one is from the Museum of Oriental Ceramics in Osaka, Japan.   https://www.pinterest.com

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Literary, Psychological/Social study, Japan
Written by: Hiromi Kawakami
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 06/06/2017
ISBN: 978-1609453992
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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