The Third Love by Hiromi Kawakami - review by Stevie Davies

Stevie Davies

Living the Dream

The Third Love


Granta Books 288pp £14.99

Hiromi Kawakami’s fiction has long been haunted by lonely women. ‘I took the bus alone,’ recalls Tsukiko, the narrator of her prize-winning novel Strange Weather in Tokyo (2001), ‘I walked around the city alone, I did my shopping alone, and I drank alone.’ The story portrays the solace Tsukiko finds in the unlikely bond she forges with her one-time schoolmaster, whom she calls Sensei (‘Teacher’). Variations on these figures – a younger married woman and an ageing man – feature in her new novel, The Third Love, a shimmering magic-realist tale that slips between epochs, tenses and narrative modes, and draws on folk tales, Zen Buddhism and the writings of women in ancient Japan, including the tenth-century diarist Sei Shōnagon and Murasaki Shikibu, the author of what is widely considered the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji.

Riko, a modern city girl, is old-fashioned – and in more ways than one. Shy and withdrawn, she cleaves to her childhood sweetheart, the older Naa-chan, seeking sweet security with this tender boy, ‘quiver[ing] with happiness’ when he runs his fingers through her long, silken hair. Old-fashioned, too, is the figure of Mr Takaoka, the school janitor, to whom Riko is drawn, despite his off-putting ‘demon’ face. When, as an adult, Riko marries Naa-chan, her heart overflows with joy, until she discovers his infidelities. Marriage, previously a refuge, becomes a place of profound consternation. 

Kawakami ponders the price a modern Japanese married woman has to pay in a society which still tacitly solicits deference and rejects any acts of defiance. Well, yes, Riko counsels herself, my husband charms and is charmed by other women, which is a sadness, but look on the bright

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RLF - March