Strangers by Taichi Yamada


Translated from Japanese by Wayne P. Lammers

First Published: (in Japanese) 1987. English translation UK edition, Faber & Faber 2005.
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work

Memorable quote: “This feeling of too much quiet first came over me on a night near the end of July as I sat working at my desk a little after eleven. A chill ran down my spine, and I felt as though I were suspended in the middle of a vast, dark void, utterly alone.”

I picked up this slim volume on the strength of its recommendation by David Mitchell (of Cloud Atlas fame) who is one of my favourite authors. Strangers is billed as a ghost story but its tone is largely one of uncanny mystery rather than true horror. This is no bad thing. In fact the tone rather reminded me, surprisingly, of those classically sensational Victorian mysteries (indeed, there is even a section where the protagonist visits a music hall) although transplanted to the very different landscape and era of modern Japan – and at the same time, this is a distinctly Japanese tale.

Yamada’s story follows Hanada, a middle-aged TV scriptwriter assessing the wreckage of his recent divorce from the lonely refuge of the apartment that used to be his office and has now become his home. This appropriated domestic setting is a fascinating one. Since the block is primarily used for business purposes, at night the salarymen depart and it becomes almost deserted. The notion of quiet abandonment even within the bustling metropolis of Tokyo is one of the factors that contributes most effectively to the novel’s atmosphere of elegantly restrained eeriness. It also sets the tone for Hanada’s own troubles and for the sense of isolation and detachment he experiences even as he continues the daily interactions of living and earning a living. One night, Hanada finds himself drawn inexplicably to a theatre district near to where he grew up. Hanada’s parents both died when he was still a boy, so it is extremely unnerving for him to encounter amongst the audience there a man who precisely resembles his father, at the age he remembers him  shortly before the accident. Unnerving yes, but for Yamada’s deeply lonely protagonist also strangely comforting and the rest of the tale – which I won’t spoil – examines his battle between rationality and perception, between head and heart, and most of all between horror and hunger.

This is an example of a book where the power of the overall premise far exceeds the specifics of its plot. There is a twist here which I found rather predictable; it felt almost tacked on, as if it was necessary to up the ante of real horror in the final paragraphs. But these disappointments do not diminish the sense of quiet menace that novel creates, a sensation too insidious to be exorcised completely even as the plot is tied up. Not entirely successful then, but as a work of atmosphere rather than action this delivers a enjoyable chill.

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