The story takes place in Tokyo in 2013 and reflects back on the unusual relationship of the narrator Miyako, 55, with her brother Ryō, 54. Nearly 20 years have gone by since the two unmarried siblings returned to live in the home where they grew up. Miyako now works at home as a freelance illustrator, while Ryō commutes to an office job. Having long looked on Ryō as more than a brother, as an integral part of her own being, Miyako initiated a sexual relationship with him in the summer of 1986. This was shortly before their mother died of an illness. Miyako now leads the reader back and forth across the nearly three decades since that time, recounting her relationships with Ryō and her mother, discussing her father, and reflecting on life in general.
Miyako’s mother’s family had long owned a traditional Japanese paper store in central Tokyo. Her mother’s older brother, as the first-born son, had been expected to become the third-generation head of the family business, but he balked at this burden and chose to strike out on his own. Miyako and Ryō had grown up calling this uncle “Papa,” as if he were their father. Their grandfather recruited a man named Takeji, the third son of a fellow paper merchant, to help with the business, and in time turned operations entirely over to him. He pressured his daughter (Miyako’s mother) to marry Takeji, to bring him into the family, but she had a mind of her own and refused. Miyako and Ryō are in their twenties before they learn, from Takeji himself, that he is their biological father. Although her mother never says so directly, Miyako also learns that her mother was the daughter of a mistress, and did not have the same mother as “Papa.” After Miyako’s mother dies, “Papa” moves out of the family home to live by himself in an apartment. When he suffers a minor stroke, the two siblings urge him to move in with them, but he chooses to remain on his own. Although the circumstances of the two siblings and two half-siblings are different, readers naturally find themselves probing certain parallels between them.
While detailing the ebb and flow of the two siblings’ relationship and their life together, largely apart from the world, author Hiromi Kawakami punctuates the story with significant historical events that shake up their tranquil existence. It is Ryō’s narrow escape from the Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995 that prompts him to actually move in with Miyako. Their family home built more than half a century before incurs structural damage in the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, and in the spring of 2014 the two decide to raze the house and put the lot up for sale.
A consummate stylist, Kawakami constructs a world of peace and calm that penetrates ever more deeply into readers’ hearts with each well-chosen word in this quiet masterpiece.