Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

This novella is a tiny, wonderful masterpiece that I picked up and purchased without any knowledge of it, despite the fact that it has been celebrated for 30 years. It includes two short stories about mourning, love and the mystery and beauty of life. 

In the first story, the young narrator, Mikage, is invited to live with a young man, Yuichi, and his mother, Eriko, after her grandmother dies, her last living relative. She doesn't know Yuichi or his mother, but his grandmother has met Yuichi at the flower shop in which he worked. Mikage feels comfortable with him, but is most struck by Eriko, a beautiful woman, who, Yuichi shares with her, is also a man. When Yuichi's mother died, Eriko could think of nothing else he wanted to be than a woman, and Yuichi's mother, and so she was.

I realized that the world did not exist for my benefit. It followed that the ratio of pleasant and unpleasant things around me would not change. it wasn’t up to me. It was clear that the best thing to do was to adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness. So I became a woman, and here I am.
— Banana Yoshimoto, Kitchen

This strange arrangement somehow works, and Mikage begins sleeping on their giant couch centered in the middle of their living room. Always a lover of kitchens, her favorite room in the house, she also begins to cook diligently, sharing the meals with Yuichi and Eriko.

Six months later, she has moved out and been living and working separately from her old housemates for over a month. It is at that time that she receives a call from Yuichi, telling her his mother has been killed by an obsessive stalker of the gay club which she owned and at which she worked. He, too, has lost his last relative and, together, they are alone. Her feelings, and his depression, make things seem very complicated so she goes on a work trip tasting hotel food in different regions to get away. However, each makes efforts to take care of one another during this distance, and the reader is left with a great sense of optimism that they will have each other - that the story will go on. 

The sky outside was dull gray. Waves of clouds were being pushed around by the wind with amazing force. In this world there is no place for sadness. No place: not one.
— Banana Yoshimoto, Kitchen

In Yoshimoto's second short story, she writes about a young girl, Satsuki, who has experienced the devastating loss of her boyfriend in a car accident. She takes up very early morning running to clear her mind over sleepless nights and, on one such morning, meets a strange girl, Urara, by the river. Urara tells her she thinks something special will soon happen at the river, and Satsuki goes away feeling very strange about the encounter. A few days go by. In the meantime, she meets also with her boyfriend's younger brother, Hiiragi, who too is mourning, not just his brother's death, but the death of his young girlfriend who had also been in the car. He wears her school uniform to keep her near him, even though it makes Satsuki and others feel uncomfortable. 

We’ve been very lonely, but we had it easy. Because death is so heavy - we, too young to know about it, couldn’t handle it. After this you and I may end up seeing nothing but suffering, difficulty, and ugliness, but if only you’ll agree to it, I want for us to go on to more difficult places, happier places, whatever comes, together.
— Banana Yoshimoto, Kitchen

Urara gets in touch and asks to meet, and invites her to join her at the river again the morning after next. Satsuki is a bit sick, but she manages, and, together, they experience what can only be experienced every 100 years - the dimension will shift a little bit and each will see 'something'. And they do, across the river, she sees her dead boyfriend, and is able to wave goodbye. On the same night, Hiiragi is visited by his ex, and, when he wakes up the next morning, his sailor uniform is missing.

While each focuses on death, it remains very much about connection, friendship and life. I loved each moment of these stories, and felt a buoyancy I feel only with the fewest of books.