I always come back from Japan in the middle of winter, which is maybe not the best time to come back. Because one day, I am basking in the mild winter temperatures of Tokyo and later that same day, I am plunged into the icy tempest of Toronto. Which just sends me scurrying into my apartment and vowing not to come back out until April. Fortunately, my apartment in Toronto is a lot bigger than my place in Tokyo, and I have all my books here. And hibernating is a piece of cake as long as I have something to read.
So I locked myself up in my tower and have been waiting for winter to end, checking the temperature in Tokyo every so often and sighing. And when you are hibernating, or at least when I am hibernating, comics don’t quite do it. I want to sit down with a novel—a long-ish one preferably—and fall away into another world where the view is not whited out with snow. The cosiness of curling up under a blanket on the sofa with some tea and a new novel can never be overstated. Hibernating at its best. Made impossibly better by Kanako Nishi. (I’ll save my bewildered rant wondering why she hasn’t yet been published in English, but you know I have one at the ready.)
Gyokou no Nikuko-chan is told from the perspective of Kikuko aka Kikurin, the eleven-year-old daughter of the titular Nikuko. Kikurin raises a sceptical eyebrow and heaves exasperated sighs at just about everything Nikuko does. Nikuko is thirty-eight, fat, and kind of ugly. She likes the cheesiest garbage, filling their tiny house with an assortment of gaudiness—dinosaur foot slippers, paw print blankets, a paper clock depicting Van Gogh with his ear bandaged. She is unabashedly loud and not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Time and time again, she falls for total garbage guys, who use her until they find someone or something better and then run off, leaving her broken-hearted and occasionally deep in debt.
Kikurin gives us the overview of Nikuko’s highs/lows in the first few pages, strangely omitting herself from the story for the most part. She inserts herself toward the end of this timeline, when Nikuko takes up with a bookish “self-styled novelist” who introduces Kikurin to the joys of reading. For the first time, she’s not too upset when the man runs off because now all his books are hers. But of course, Nikuko is distraught and chases after the would-be novelist up to a town in the north, only to learn that she has ended up in the wrong town. Because she actually didn’t know where he was from, only that he was from “the north.” Still, they decide to stay in the small fishing port town, and before they know it, Nikuko is working at the yakiniku place (because no matter how delicious the fish in a port town, people want to have meat sometimes), and they’re living in a small house behind the restaurant.
This is where Nishi really digs into her story, and the next three hundred pages are about Kikurin’s life in this small town, dealing with her excitable mother, but mostly figuring out who she is. Because she is eleven, and that is what you do when you are eleven. Kikurin wrestles with wanting to be an adult already, while at the same time never wanting to be an adult, to always be the way she is now. She likes her body, “kind of skinny, totally flat-chested, legs like sticks.” But she also wants to get out, go somewhere far away from this small town, especially when she thinks about how everyone there knows everyone else. “How does it feel to have the same relationships you had with people when you were little when you’re an adult?” she wonders, a little unhappy with the idea. To always be stuck in those relationships, having everyone know everything about your life, seems impossible for her.
She details the relationships of the people in the town, not just between her and her friends at school and all the drama there, but also the adults in her life. There is Maki with her “face like a cat about to fall asleep”, impossibly laidback, idolized by Kikurin; Kanako the pet store owner who is so deeply devoted to the well-being of his animals that he is aggressively hostile to any would-be pet buyers, convinced they will not give his animals the care they deserve; Sassan, the old man who owns the yakiniku place and lets them the house out back on the condition they never get sick because it would be bad for business, and so many more. Nishi populates the town with interesting characters, but the pages never feel cluttered or like she is trying to prop up a limp story by introducing “quirky” characters. They feel natural and real, especially seen through Kikurin’s eyes, and the interactions with her and with each other that she witnesses serve to shape Kikurin and nudge her toward adulthood. But they’re not cardboard cutouts there to only push Kikurin forward; Nishi gives us peeks into their own stories that are tantalizing.
And as always, more than anything, it is Nishi’s way of putting a sentence together, the little details she weaves into the story that make this book such a worthwhile read. You get a taste of this very early on when Kikurin describes the first time she saw real snow up in the port town. The snow she had seen in Tokyo was fluffy and flaky and disappeared almost before it hit the ground. This snow, however, was resolute, “almost like it was shouting, I’ll never melt!”. It’s just such a vivid and fantastical way to describe something as commonplace as snow, and it’s touches like this that make the fishing town on these pages leap to life.
There are also those little fanciful touches that I loved in Enjo Suru Kimi. Kikurin hears everything around her talking—lizards, the furniture, the picture of Sassan’s dead wife—but she mentions this so casually that you feel the ground shift under your feet, and you’re suddenly uncertain about what kind of novel it is you’re reading. She also sees ghosts from time to time, and when she realizes that a certain classmate only talks to her when they are alone, she wonders if he isn’t a ghost. And you wonder it right along with her.
In the end, Nikuko-chan is a girl’s coming-of-age story, but she comes of age in such an unexpected (I seriously did not see the last third of the book coming at all) and yet utterly beautiful way that I totally cried at the end. A perfect novel for hibernating.