There are some stories that seem as if the only goal is to go as big as possible. Globe trotting adventures, dastardly villains, and always a bigger and brighter battle just over the horizon. Through stories like these, it can be easy to overlook the weirdness that happens even in your own community. In People From My Neighborhood, Hiromi Kawakami offers us a peek into the happenings both strange and mundane in a single town. There’s an incredible breadth on display here, with stories of love and loss, legends come to life, and even greater mysteries left untold—all contained within a single neighborhood. Many of the tales are delightful, but the collection lacks cohesion despite featuring recurring characters, leaving People From My Neighborhood feeling a bit more scattered than intended.
People From My Neighborhood is comprised of dozens of different stories, almost all of which are no more than a few pages long. Each varies wildly in theme and the level of surreality, some of which feel like a dispatch of the latest from your town delivered by your gossipy mom, and others pure fairy tales. One story details “The Buriers,” a grade-school club of kids who bury things, sorely missed after a large collection of unwanted love letters are discovered. Another deals with a no-gravity event that strikes the town.
While a few stories seem totally isolated from the rest, most feature a recurring character out of the cast the book builds up over its length. There’s the narrator—who appears in many of the stories as a sort of observer character, alongside her childhood friend Kanae who takes a more active role. There’s Kanae’s sister, a quiet girl who’s rumored to be part of a revolutionary plot and later becomes a spirit medium; a woman who runs a small bar called “the Love”; a man who serves as the “principal” of a school for dogs in the park; and Hachiro, a boy shuffled around the neighborhood due to his family’s poverty, among other characters. Many of the characters are featured in a story before becoming secondary in others. For example, Kanae’s story is a rumor-laden tale—half from the narrator’s perspective, and half via a woman in the neighborhood—describing her shift from a normal school girl, to delinquent and gang member, to a fashion designer of such renown to be called “the pride of the hometown.”
While the continuity afforded by the singular cast creates some stability in the collection, the stories are self-contained enough in an effect that feels at times both distinct and detached. There are few lingering effects in the collection, and while some of the stories flash-forward to showcase the entirety of a character’s life, the next is just as likely to pick back up at around the same time the previous one started. All is temporary in People From My Neighborhood, as in life. No matter what strange events occur in this town, the Sun rises on each day anew. The most dreamlike stories—like one about an alien diplomat who takes over the town, or a mysterious illness that causes people to exhibit traits of pigeons—sit alongside the mundane—for example, the one that features rumors about Kanae, or when a “princess” moves in and is unimpressed by the children—with equal weight.
In this way, People From My Neighborhood reads like the annals of a town’s history, as told by an especially imaginative child. It’s through these wonder-filled eyes we’re left to experience the stories, whose questions are as likely to be answered by magic as they are by everyday means. But even the most uneventful stories are filled with awe. There’s moments of pure joy in some of the stories here, like the surprising dexterity Kanae’s sister shows for flying during the anti-gravity event. But that same depth is shown even in the stories that remain grounded. There’s humor and poignancy in spades. Another of my favorite stories describes the life of Sokichi Nashida, a man whose desire to avoid the family business sees him become a day trader, agricultural trend-setter, and Buddhist priest before he finds fates pull on him is heavier than he thought, and finally embraces his family’s trade: abstract art.
People From My Neighborhood is a rich collection, full of stories that delight and awe in equal measure. But while we get a decent grasp of a few of the characters, the collection never quite builds a full portrait of a neighborhood, strange as it may be. This affords Kawakami the room to explore places she might otherwise be prevented from, but leaves the book at times feeling a bit disjointed. Still, the perspective Kawakami offers here is one bursting with curiosity at the world found in a single community.
People From My Neighborhood
By Hiromi Kawakami
Published November 30, 2021
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.