Filler content with Japanese ghosts

This review originally appeared in The Third Alternative #41:-

STRANGERS by TAICHI YAMADA

Vertical pb, 203pp, $14.95                                                    www.vertical-inc.com

Strangers is the story of Harada, a jaded TV scriptwriter who, after an unhappy divorce, moves into an apartment building where most of the floor space is rented out for business use. The only other inhabitant of the building at night is the woman Kei, whom he initially shuns, preferring his own company, but then grows close to, their relationship eventually blossoming into a love match. But there are distractions in Harada’s life. His career for one, which is not going as well as he’d hoped, and the producer with whom he enjoyed the most success in the past is now dating his ex-wife. The most significant event though is that he has fallen in with a middle-aged couple who remind him of his parents, tragically killed when he was a young boy. As this relationship develops Harada cannot deny the evidence of his own senses, that these people actually are his father and mother, somehow returned from beyond the grave, come back to be with him in his hour of need and bring a little comfort into a joyless life. Though made blissfully happy by his changed circumstances, Harada appears to others as a man in terminal decline, his health and vitality sapped away, something of which he himself remains unaware

This is a subtle ghost story, one that doesn’t have all that much of a plot to work with but does wonders with the material. There is a feeling of rightness about what happens, as Harada sees his own social isolation eased by the return of his parents and the love of Kei, but such consolation comes at a terrible cost, one that he is willing to pay up to a point. The scenes with his parents are beautifully rendered, the very ordinariness and wonder of such things as a family sitting down to a meal together captured on the page, imparting to the book a glow of nostalgia, so that you can almost see the life Harada lost as a result of their untimely death and feel for him in this desperate, unquestioning attempt to seize back all that he was denied. Similarly his relationship with Kei, the age old rituals of courtship, of friendship growing into love, is portrayed in a manner that makes what happens between them believable and thoroughly credible, so that the reader doesn’t even think to question what is going on.

There is one fly in the ointment, an inconsistency in the train of events that could have done with some smoothing over, but it’s a minor point and not one that seriously detracts from the novel’s worth, while the story ends with a twist that both shocks and has about it a sense of fatalistic rightness. At the heart of Strangers and permeating every page is loneliness, with the emotional isolation and social detachment of people like Harada and Kei thrown into even sharper focus by the deserted urban landscape in which they find themselves, demonstrating the verity of that old saying about how you can be alone even in a crowded city. Harada is little more than a shade himself, going about his life with a quiet desperation and sense of purpose that is little more than habit, making him easy prey to denizens of the spirit world. This isn’t a classic ghost story by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a carefully constructed tale of urban haunting, character driven and just that little bit out of the ordinary, enough so to make it worth seeking out.

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