Aug 18, 2008

Strangers by Taichi Yamada

Hideo Harada is a middle-aged and recently divorced TV scriptwriter. He doesn’t have many friends, and professionally things aren’t going too well for him. Ever since his divorce, he has been living in a one-room apartment that used to be his office, and the complete silence that engulfs the building after night falls haunts him. One evening, he decides to visit Asakusa, the Tokyo district where he lived with his parents until their death, which happened when he was twelve years old. There, he befriends a man who looks exactly like his father at the time of his death. And so begins a story in which the world of the living and the world of the dead intertwine.

I have mixed feelings about Strangers. I loved it until the last two or three chapters, but then something that changed the direction of the story happened, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. But let me start with the good things.

Strangers is wonderfully haunting and atmospheric. For the most part, it was the exact kind of ghost story that I like: the kind that is eerie, but not exactly dark or frightening. The kind that is quiet and melancholy, and about grief and loss, and how the living keep on dealing with the death emotionally even after they depart.

I also liked all the references to traditional Japanese folklore. Not that I know much about it, but Hideo mentions “the old stories” quite a few times, and they seem to inform his knowledge of how contact between the world of the living and the world of the dead is supposed to go. I liked how palpable Hideo’s loneliness is, and this even though he is the narrator and doesn't acknowledge it himself. And I liked how, like in all the best stories, the small miracles in Strangers came at a price.

So I was all prepared to declare Strangers a sad, beautiful and haunting ghost story. But then it happened. And by “it” I mean the twist at the end. I won’t give it away, of course, but I will say that while it didn’t exactly surprise me, it disappointed me. I had considered the possibility of things going that way, but I dismissed it because I thought it would ruin the story.

And did it? Well, I think that the problem was that I had envisioned how the story should go a little too clearly. I didn’t mean to, but I just couldn’t help it. And while the twist might not have ruined the actual story, it ruined the story I imagined I was reading. It added a note of bitterness and vengeance that I didn’t want the book to have.

For this reason, I feel that I can’t exactly do this book justice. I feel that I should read it again, now that I know how the story actually goes, and see how I react to what is there without my expectations playing tricks on me.

Disappointments aside, I do think that Strangers is worth reading. It’s fast-paced and well-written, and it’s both moving and disturbing.

Other Blog Reviews:
In Spring it is the Dawn

One More Chapter
Reading Matters
Books of Mee
The Reading Life

(Have you reviewed it as well? If so, let me know and I'll add your link to this list.)


  1. It sounds very much like the experience I had with both A Brief History of the Dead and The Invention of Everything Else. Both were wonderful books that were somewhat undone for me by the last chapter. Not enough to not recommend the books because they are very good and not enough to keep me away from ever rereading them...possibly. I suspect if I were to reread them I would feel much better about the overall story including the end.

  2. That sounds like the kind of book I would like (I love ghost stories) but I wonder about the twist at the end... if I come across it, I'll add it to the stack...

  3. I read Strangers last year and had a similar collision between my expectation and the actual end of the story...I read it again about three weeks ago and found it to be a bit more satisfying - give it some time and try it again...

  4. I quite enjoyed this story, Nymeth. As you said, it's eerie but yet it's not exactly dark or frightening and this is exactly what I love to read.

    I agree the ending is a little disappointing, and I suppose it adds more intrigue behind everything.

  5. I guess that's one of the benefits to having very little imagination. OK, I'm kidding a little bit--I have *some* imagination. I have to be honest that I'm intrigued to know what the twist was, but I probably won't pick this one up any time soon. Sorry for the disappointing end--hopefully the good will stick with you instead of the bad.

  6. The premise sounds really interesting and I am sorry that the twist near the end let it down for you. I may give it a go.

  7. Carl: It's always too bad when that happens, isn't it? But I think it says something about the books that we'd still recommend them and consider re-reading them despite the disappointing endings. And both of those ended up on my wishlist because of you.

    Daphne: Maybe you'd feel differently about it..some other bloggers gave this one 5 out of 5 stars. And even with the meh ending I'd still say it's worth reading.

    Ken: I think I will, yes. It's likely that I'd enjoy it more knowing what happens at the end and paying attention to all the signs.

    Melody: Me too. And I'm glad I'm not the only one to feel this way about the ending. You do have a point, though. It certainly added another dimension to the story.

    Trish: lol, you do have an imagination, I'm sure :P I suspect that all book lovers do. I think I'll remember the good more than the bad, yes.

    Rhinoa: Do give it a go. Maybe you'll like the ending, and even if not, it's still worth reading.

  8. Don't you just hate it when that happens? Still sounds like a good read and something that I might go ahead and add to the wishlist. I'm about to start on the Japanese challenge I think. I think I'm going to start with After Dark by Murakami. I was going to by Wind Up Bird Chronicle the other day but it's just so damn big!

  9. I don't even remember now what the twist was. How terrible is my memory? All I remember is that I was disappointed with the book. Ah well. Can't win 'em all. :P

  10. How do you do it?!! Seriously, I'm sitting here laughing to myself, because I simply can't resist a book that you review. Despite your disappointment in its end, I am left so utterly intrigued that I know it's pointless for me to even try to resist picking this one up.

  11. I haven't read this one, so I can't comment.
    I finished SNAKES AND EARRINGS, this is a book which has been lost in translation. I came upon a post on B&N where a woman read the book in both Japanese and English and found to many words missing because they can not be translated into English, she felt she loved the Japanese version and found the English version simplified.
    There was an enormous amount of sex, I am no prude, but where is the story line? Still I did to a point enjoy the book.

  12. Oh Chris, I think you'll love After Dark!

    You're right Nymeth, it really does say something about those books. The writers are obviously very skilled and perhaps, for me, it is my general desire for a traditional ending that sometimes leaves me less than thrilled with the ending of these books. And then some are just not well done and could have used the hand of a trusted editor. I truly think that about the second to last chapter in Brief History. It should have been edited.

  13. Chris: I really do. I can't wait to see what you think of After Dark! I know, the length of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is discouraging, but it's one of those chunksters that don't feel very long at all.

    tanabata: A hint: the twist has to do with his neighbour. And yeah, can't win them all!

    Debi: It's not on purpose, I swear :P I hope you enjoy this one!

    Madeleine: I always wonder about how much is lost in translation too. I think that applies to all language to an extent, but with Japanese in particular so much must be lost...I wish I had the superpower of being able to read all books in their original languages. And yes, I'm not a prude either, but I don't see the point of sex scenes that add absolutely nothing to the story.

    Carl: I think a good editor might have helped in this case too. Also, this novel was originally published in 1987, so I wonder if Yamada got better with time. I'll have to look for his other novels.

  14. I'm going to have to check this book out. Your disappointment in the twist makes me want to know what the twist is!!

    --Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

  15. This is a book I have on my to-be-read list. I always find that the Japanese know how to make a great suspenseful tragedy with an ending one least expects. Usually these endings bring up an interesting point that the artist wants to share. I agree with you about expecting a book to end the way you imagine. I guess sometimes obvious endings make a work less powerful mainly because we are human we want it to end peacefully rather than a devastating blow to the human soul. Re-reading the book always helps make things clearer. :]

    Thanks for the heads up. I'm curious now.

  16. Orchidus: I really look forward to seeing what you think of this one. In this case in particular, it's not that I expected a peaceful ending, but I expected the blow to come from a different direction than the one it actually did. And to be of a different kind too. It's hard to explain this properly without giving too much away. But I think you'll see what I mean when you get to it.

  17. I know what you mean about the ending, but I still loved it just the same. Thanks for linking to my review!

  18. I am not sure if I remeber the twist... It is too long ago I read the book. But I loved it! It made me cry... (Cry Baby LOL). I had absolutely no restraints about it as far as I remember -- it is one of my favourites! his other novels I didn't like as much.

    As long as you found it well worth reading ;)


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