Review: Dragon Palace

Japanese author Hiromi Kawakami (People from My Neighborhood) brings readers into an off-kilter, supernaturally charged world in the eight surreal speculative stories that make up her provocative collection Dragon Palace, translated by Ted Goossen.

The opening story, "Hokusai," finds a tongue-tied young man falling under the thrall of a grifter who claims to be an octopus living in human form. "Have you seen that picture of the octopus twining itself around a naked pearl diver? That was me," the octopus man boasts, referencing the Hokusai woodcut The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife. In the titular story, "Dragon Palace," a woman is visited by her ancestor, a goddess who controlled her followers with sex and felt driven to wander the earth. A caregiver in her 50s falls into a relationship with a man in his 90s who is possessed by a fox spirit in "Fox's Den." A mole and his wife collect depressed humans and care for them underground, even going so far as to adopt their babies, in the strangely touching "Mole." In "Shimazaki," a woman falls in love with her own ancestor, a 400-year-old life coach. "Sea Horse" sees a supernatural woman lured from her home in the ocean by her attraction to a man, only to be passed from husband to husband and kept "like a well-maintained car in their garage" as she yearns to return to the sea.

Kawakami plays with themes of transformation and identity in unexpected, sometimes humorous ways. Many of her characters struggle to understand themselves, such as the tongue-tied young man whom the former octopus exhorts to find his own path. Characters also deal with the mystifying aspects of love, finding connection in startling places, and wondering where the lines are between love, sex, and intimacy. Kawakami uses some of her trademark ingredients, such as May-December romances, this time with as much as a 200-year age gap, and plenty of mythical and folkloric entities. Gender dynamics wind through the narratives as well. A housewife takes money from a man she's having an affair with, only to find he stops paying her when she agrees out loud that they are lovers. The woman from the sea is treated as a possession by her husbands but feels inexplicably unable to attempt escape. Ted Goossen's translation gives Kawakami's spare prose all its gently eerie glory in this delectable assortment of the odd and the moving. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Shelf Talker: Dragon Palace features eight surreal, emotionally affecting stories set in a world where the mystical and mundane rub elbows.

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