Hideo Harada is a failed father and divorced. Left with very little, he retreats to his office and apartment to work on TV script writing. Only one woman lives in the same building and she tries to become friends but Harada is too busy and upset at his ex-wife. Living in a very busy area of Tokyo his depression becomes too much and he longs for a change so on his birthday he visits his birth town, Asakusa, and is stunned to see a man who strikingly resembles his long dead father. At the age of 48 he knows this could not be his father who died when he was 12 but before long he is reintroduced to his long dead parents. Are they real or is it just a hallucination brought on by the depression and grief of visiting the place they once lived?
Strangers is the first English language book by Taichi Yamada and I knew it was a fictional ghost story but I never really thought it would be so engaging. A little slow to begin the book soon settles in to a traditional Japanese-type horror (although I do stress this isnt scary in the slightest). Some of the descriptions are certainly along the lines of something expected of Japanese films like Ringu in the idea of paranoia and a woman with dark hair coming after you. But really this is where the likeness ends. The story is definitely different to what I would normally read and the emotions are so strong. The emotion of finding your dead parents alive and well living in modern times different to the past but havent aged since their death. The fact that Harada cant believe they are his parents because even he is older than they are. I did find it very emotional, upsetting at times with loss, but the final scenes are very revealing.
I wouldnt say the book was so much of a page turner as usually Id expect a phrase or a word at the end of a chapter as a cliff hanger which would want me to read on but really there wasnt many in the chapters. The few that do occur seem so over dramatic it sounds like Haradas life is (or has) ended e.g. Later that same evening, everything came to and end. The 16 chapters are relatively short and so is the book itself at only 203 pages but even half way through I found it took no longer than a few hours to progress to the end as the story really livened (if you can say that about a ghost story!).
There are not many characters in the book as Harada, the main character, is very solitary and in fact telling the story so at times its more like the thoughts running through his mind. This can become a little repetitive as he recalls the meeting with his dead parents over and over again. He is very believable as a man suffering from loneliness and anger even avoiding thinking about his own son but he himself becomes a child at the company of his parents. He questions many of the events happening in his life and early on having rejected the invitation of a drink with the only other night time occupant in the building he questions continually whether she was in fact lonely and contemplating suicide. I actually began to feel that this perhaps wasnt a reference to this woman but perhaps even to his own state of mind and the idea that he is actually considering the same thought. Kai, this perhaps suicidal woman, certainly was a strange character but she does have a very caring air about her which helps sympathise more with Harada than Kai herself. She has a secret and it doesnt want to be revealed but as the title of the book suggests, with people keeping secrets and only revealing part of their lives they still are essentially Strangers. Haradas son is a stranger as he no longer sides with his father and Harada no longer thinks about him. Mamiya, a colleague, as Harada mentions, always kept his private life a secret focusing solely on work. These few characters introduce life into the book as it would become rather dull focusing on Harada staying in his apartment the whole time and even those strangers rally round him showing that they do care at his time of need.
I loved the way the book leaned towards a psychological problem with Harada. As he visits his parents he is told he is becoming deathly pale and losing weight fast as thought they are leeching off his lifeblood but when Harada looks in the mirror he can only see a reflection that differs from reality. He doesnt know whether to believe the truth these people are revealing to him but it is the same with the introduction to his parents and discovering whether they are in fact real or not.
The setting continually moves between Harada in Tokyo and as he visits Asakusa. Tokyo always seems much livelier than the descriptions of the dilapidated Asakusa and almost like another world that can be escaped to and from. What I really found unbelievable was the fact that Harada mentions a few times that his wife got everything from their marriage and he didnt have enough money so had to move into his office. If this were in fact true would this man have the money to stay at hotels and get cabs whenever he wants to visit Asakusa?
I am giving this book 4/5 stars. Mainly because the story is captivating but with the slower start and no incentive to keep reading other than the purely personal reason to find out whom the ghosts are, it does lose interest a little until it gets going. With believable characters all pointing back to Harada it is very emotional and almost a delight to find out the real story about what this character is seeing. Meeting your dead parents must be shocking especially when they are younger than their own son but with Harada wanting to know if these people are real the fear itself climaxes to a very ghostly ending.
Price: £3.99 (Amazon UK)
Published: Faber and Faber
Memorably uncanny the powerful mood of Strangers lingers well after its graceful, downbeat ending has passed.