The Little House is Kyoko Nakajima’s first novel translated into English. I don’t know why it hasn’t been translated until this year, but when it was finally translated, the author attended many events in the UK. I caught her at two of them. And I can say that the book is as cute as the writer herself.
A housemaid in war
The Little House tells the story of a housemaid named Taki. We meet with Taki in her old age. Her golden days are over, but as the hard worker she is, she continues to do something. She writes a book. However, this is not a book about housekeeping. This is a book about her past, her memoirs as the housemaid of the Hirai family and also this is a book about war, love and all the humane things you can think of.
It is striking to read about the war from a housemaid’s perspective with all its nakedness. It is striking because there’s no politics, no ideas or ideals; there is just simple truth. But it’s not just a story about war. It is about Japan, the culture, families, relationships, companionships, love, propaganda and many more. While you’ll admire all the characters, one by one, you’ll also feel like watching a Miyazaki film, which is always great! The Little House is a must-read. Also, the translator Ginny Tapley Takemori did an excellent job! The translation is flawless. Enjoy!
The Little House
The Little House is set in the early years of the Showa era (1926-89), when Japan’s situation is becoming increasingly tense but has not yet fully immersed in a wartime footing. On the outskirts of Tokyo, near a station on a private train line, stands a modest European style house with a red, triangular shaped roof.
There a woman named Taki has worked as a maidservant in the house and lived with its owners, the Hirai family. Now, near the end of her life, Taki is writing down in a notebook her nostalgic memories of the time spent living in the house. Her journal captures the refined middle-class life of the time from her gentle perspective. At the end of the novel, however, a startling final chapter is added.
The chapter brings to light, after Taki’s death, a fact not described in her notebook. This suddenly transforms the world that had been viewed through the lens of a nostalgic memoir, so that a dramatic, flesh-and-blood story takes shape. Nakajima manages to combine skilful dialogue with a dazzling ending. The result is a polished, masterful work fully deserving of the Naoki Prize.
About the author: Kyoko Nakajima
Kyoko Nakajima is a Japanese writer. She has won the Naoki Prize, Izumi Kyōka Prize for Literature, Shibata Renzaburo Prize, Kawai Hayao Story Prize, and Chuo Koron Literary Prize, and her work has been adapted for film.
Kyoko Nakajima was born in Suginami, Tokyo, Japan to parents who worked as university professors and translators of French literature. Her father was a professor at Chuo University, while her mother was a professor at Meiji University. Nakajima attended Tokyo Woman’s Christian University.
After graduating from university, she worked for several years in publishing as an editor at Ray, Cawaii!, and other lifestyle magazines. In 1996 she quit her job to spend a year in the United States, and upon her return to Japan in 1997 she began a new career as a freelance writer.
Nakajima followed Futon with two more novels and six short story collections, and in 2009 she received a grant from the University of Iowa Center for Asian and Pacific Studies to support a residency at the International Writing Program. In 2010 her novel Chiisai ouchi (The Little House) received the 143rd Naoki Prize, one of Japan’s highest literary honors. It was later adapted into the 2014 film Chiisai Ouchi, directed by Yoji Yamada and starring Haru Kuroki.
Nakajima regularly writes opinion essays on culture and politics for Mainichi Shimbun. In 2017, in response to media coverage of the Me Too movement, Nakajima revealed her own experiences with sexual harassment in the publishing industry.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges: