Sunday, May 10, 2020

REVIEW: The Miracles of the Namiya General Store (book) by Keigo Higashino, translated by Sam Bett

The Miracles of the Namiya General Store could be called Japanese magical realism, or possibly General Fiction with fantasy aspects. It's published by Yen Press's Yen On imprint.


Content warnings for this book: suicide, child abuse and neglect, multiple deaths due to cancer.

In the late 1960s, the Namiya General Store became known for its particular gimmick: the owner would write serious replies to any letters asking for advice, even those that were clearly intended to be pranks. People would slide their letters through the store's mail slot after it closed for the night, and in the morning they'd find a response in the store's milk crate. This continued for about a decade, until the owner was no longer able to run the store.

In the book's present (probably about the same time it was published, 2012), three delinquents named Shota, Kohei, and Atsuya have completed their first big theft and need a place to hide out until morning. The hideout they select is the abandoned Namiya General Store. A short while after they arrive, someone drops a letter into the store's mail slot. Scared that they've been found out, but also curious, they open the letter. It's written by someone going by the name "Moon Rabbit," a female athlete who's faced with a serious dilemma. Her boyfriend is dying of cancer and she wants to be by his side, but both she and her boyfriend also want her to qualify for the Olympics. She can't train at the level and amount required and also be by his side, and she wants to know what she should do.

The three guys quickly find themselves emotionally invested in the letter writer's problems, but as they attempt to help her, and the other letter writers after her, they realize that there's something odd going on at the Namiya General Store. Somehow the letters coming through the mail slot are arriving from decades in the past.

If I hadn't already known it, I would never have guessed that this book was written by the same author who wrote the Detective Galileo mysteries. The tone and genre were so completely different. By the end, though, I suppose I could see some similarities between The Miracles of the Namiya General Store and, say, The Devotion of Suspect X. Both novels eventually took a bunch of little details and tied them all together into one intricate whole.

Initially, it seemed like this book would be a series of stories connected only by the Namiya General Store and the three delinquents. They'd get a new letter asking for advice, do their best to answer, and so on, until they finally left the store in the morning.

And it sort of was like that, at first. The first chapter dealt with the female athlete whose boyfriend was dying. The second chapter took place entirely in the past, focusing on the letter writer, a young man trying to decide between taking over his family's fish shop and pursuing his dream of becoming a famous musician, rather than on the three delinquents. The third chapter went deeper into the past, when the owner of the Namiya General Store was still alive and answering letters. The fourth chapter followed the structure established in the second chapter and focused on one of the letter writers, a young man who'd written the Namiya General Store's first serious request for advice.

It's around Chapter 4, but definitely Chapter 5, that Higashino starts tying things together. The characters in this book were much more interconnected than was immediately apparent. The interconnectedness of everything got to be a bit much for me, and aspects of the story became incredibly sappy. Like, "angels watching over us" kind of sappy, only not so religious.

I don't know how I feel about how certain things worked out. Both Mr. Namiya and the delinquents eventually realized that they weren't necessarily giving the letter writers answers but rather helping them feel better about the choices they were going to make regardless. The one part that made me unhappy was the end of Chapter 4, the things he discovered, and the conclusions that the author seemed to be nudging the readers towards. It looked as though the author believed that the letter writer, a teenager at the time, had been faced with two choices, a right one and a wrong one, and had made the wrong choice. However, I'm not sure that any choice could have been the right one in that situation. He had been at the mercy of his parents' decisions.

As far as emotionally manipulative books go, this wasn't bad, but I've read better. I found myself repeatedly thinking of A Man Called Ove - similar efforts to draw you into characters' lives and make you cry about them, although the stories and character types were completely different.

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