This was an unexpectedly quirky and refreshing take on the obsessional friendship trope, a theme I’ve loved ever since watching Single White Female back in the 1990’s. This is the first of the author’s novels to be translated into English from the original Japanese. I was surprised by that, because there was something about the writing style and the main character that I thought would appeal to the British reader. I thought earlier novels might have also appealed to British readers. The daily eccentricities of the the Woman in the Purple Skirt the man m were charming and intriguing, so it was that and my curiosity about the motives of the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan that drew me in to the story. There is also an interesting, melancholic sense of humour that struck me as something British reader would enjoy.
There are some characteristics that the two women share, such as living standards and finances. It’s possible that both are lonely and are living from hand to mouth, but what drives the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan to get up and watch her every move? What does she want? Eventually, she lures the Woman in the Purple Skirt to a job with the cleaning agency where she works as a hotel housekeeper. This brings the women into proximity, but instead of a friendship emerging, the Woman in a Purple Skirt falls into an affair with the boss. This is the main difference between the women; the Woman in a Yellow Cardigan only watches, while the Woman in a Purple Skirt actually lives. I felt this distinction very strongly and wondered whether there would be resentment or even anger towards the Woman in a Purple Skirt. This is where the book really ventures into thriller territory as the women meet and we see the dynamics of female relationships, the obsessiveness and that human need to be seen, recognised and even desired. This woman simply wants to be noticed and considered by someone else. Why do people recognise the Woman in the Purple Skirt? What does she have that makes people sit up and take notice?
I found myself thinking about the word ‘sonder’ – one I’m using for my own writing at the moment. It’s a German word to describe the realisation that every random passer by has a life as rich and varied as our own. This seems to be what the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan wants to know, the rich complexity of the Woman in the Purple Skirt’s life. The woman always wears a purple skirt, it is possibly this and her set daily routine that makes people notice her. As she leaves her apartment every day she is followed and insulted by neighbourhood children, in fact she’s great entertainment for the neighbours who seem equally fascinated by her set routine. Every day she walks to the bakery and buys a single cream cake, takes it to the same park bench and eats it. No one knows who her family are or where she’s from. Her jobs are temporary, she lives alone and doesn’t even attempt to relate to others. She is an enigma, and the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan watches her every move, until she knows her daily routine uby heart. Even her appearance is intriguing. From a distance she could pass for a schoolgirl, but up close she has liver spots that belie her age. Her hair is dry, she lives in a small, shabby apartment and is short on money. She looks like one thing, but could very well be another. She’s different, but seems to have carved a life out in the world, something that the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan seems to find so difficult.
I thought it was wonderful to have two such complex and multi-dimensional female characters, especially where the relationship between them is the focus. There was a peculiar creeping unease built into the narrative. Japan seems to exude ‘otherness’ like nowhere else, a theme explored in the film Lost in Translation. I lived next to a Japanese Garden for seven years, where English plants and trees were pruned into the shapes of Japanese topiary. Stepping into it from my cottage garden made felt like entering a surreal and alien landscape. That’s a little bit what this book felt like. It was original and refreshing, perfect for if you’re in a reading slump, and a fascinating take on the thriller genre.