The Woman in the Purple Skirt | Natsuko Imamura #JPNfiction

There’s a person living not too far from me known as the Woman in the Purple Skirt. She only ever wears a purple-colored skirt – which is why she has this name.

I had no idea what to expect from The Woman in the Purple Skirt – perhaps another Japanese story about a slightly odd character who doesn’t fit into traditionlal society? That’s certainly how it started out.

The Woman in the Purple Skirt spends most of her day sitting on a park bench, in her purple skirt, being teased by the local children. She ignores this attention and acts like she cannot see them at all. She appears to be impervious to her status in the neighbourhood as the odd-bod.

Some people would pretend they hadn’t seen her, and carry on as before. Others would quickly move aside, to give her room to pass. Some would pump their fists and look happy and hopeful. Others would do the opposite and look fearful and downcast. (It’s one of the rules that two sightings in a single day means good luck, while three means bad luck.)

Occasionally she gets a job and she has her own apartment to go home to each night. She doesn’t appear to take very good care of herself – wild hair, untidy clothing, sporadic eating habits. Our narrator (who describes herself as the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan) decides to help her out by secretly leaving the job vacancies paper on her park bench and leaving her a bag of shampoo samples. By circling possible job positions in the paper, the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan eventually leads her to applying for a job as a housekeeper at the hotel where she also works.

This is where things go way off-piste. A weird stalker-ish vibe takes over the story and suddenly we don’t know who to trust or to believe any longer. Who is being manipulated and for what purpose? The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan tells us that she wants to befriend the Woman in the Purple Skirt, yet she is unable to simply approach her and start up a conversation. Instead she spends a huge amount of time and energy trying to find ways to put them in the same place at the same time in the hope a natural, spontaneous conversation will happen.

We are once again reminded of the very strict, rigid protocols within workplaces in Japan, especially those around greeting colleagues, customers and other social behaviours whilst working. These are all skills everyone has to learn when starting a new job, and there are times that I have wondered if a very specific script to follow might not be an advantage for the some of the people I’ve worked with over the years who struggle with basic social interactions…but I still find the idea rather off-putting. It certainly takes the personal response and any spontaneity out of social interactions. Perhaps this is why the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan feels unable to simply approach the other woman and say ‘hi’?

The Woman in the Purple Skirt progresses through the training process with flying colours. She makes new friends and appears to fit in very quickly, as the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan becomes odder and odder. It is very clear that the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan is an unreliable narrator, her motives suspect, yet hers is the only perspective we have. There are times she is almost invisible to those around her, disappearing into the background quietly, watching, waiting, wishing for friendship. It turns out that the isolated, friendless loner is not the Woman in the Purple Skirt but the nondescript, inexplicable Woman in the Yellow Cardigan.

Unfortunately, no one knows or cares about the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan. That’s the difference between her and the Woman in the Purple Skirt.

The ending is somewhat confusing and resolves very little to the satisfaction of the reader. This is not necessarily the stumbling block one might initially think though. Something about The Woman in the Purple Skirt gets under your skin. It’s unsettling and unnerving and has more to say about loneliness and vulnerability and obsession than one first thinks. Human connection is such an essential need and judging by the contemporary literature coming out of Japan, it is a major social problem as more and more young people struggle to find a healthy work/life balance and struggle to initiate and maintain relationships.

The Woman in the Purple in the end is not a story about a woman wearing a purple skirt, it is as you may have already worked out, all about the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan.

According to her publishers bio, Natsuko Imamura has also worked as a hotel housekeeper.

Facts:

  • Nominated three times for the Akutagawa Prize, she finally won it in 2019 with The Woman in the Purple Skirt.

Favourite Quote:

So I would do it again. And this time, much harder. I might dig my nails into the flesh on the top of her nose, and make her bleed. The Woman in the Purple Skirt might fly into a rage, and then grab me and drag me off the bus. But I didn’t care. That would allow me to tell her who I was, and to apologize to her, and beg her forgiveness. And then we could become friends.

From the TBR: This has been on my TBR since September 2021

Title: The Woman in the Purple Skirt | Murasaki no sukaato no onna
Author: Natsuko Imamura
Translator: Lucy North
ISBN: 9780571364671
Imprint: Faber
Published: 14 September 2021 (originally published 1 June 2019)
Format: Demy paperback (with French flaps)
Pages: 176
Dates Read: 15 January 2023 -  20 January 2023
  • This post was written in the area we now call the Blue Mountains within the Ngurra [country] of the Dharug and Gundungurra peoples.

27 thoughts on “The Woman in the Purple Skirt | Natsuko Imamura #JPNfiction

  1. What a fabulous review, Brona! A weird stalker-ish vibe, for sure, and yet it pulls in so many interesting aspects to think about. As you wrote: job place protocols and etiquette; connection and belonging; loneliness. In many places, it made me so sad (despite being so strange). Like The Convenience Store Woman, we (or at least I) came to normalize the narrator, and could hardly point out as you did that she is definitely unreliable. But, her loneliness haunts me still…

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    1. Thanks Meredith.
      When I first finished the book I wasn’t sure I liked it – a bit too slight, a little confusing. But as I was writing this post over a few days and thinking about the story, certain elements took on more significance and clarified themselves.
      The number of such sad stories about loneliness & isolation coming out of Japan though makes me feel rather concerned for the country as a whole.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lately, it seems as if every Japanese novel I hear about features lonely people repressed by Japanese conformity and feeling alienated by it.
    I know that there are J-Lit authors writing stuff that interests me more because I’ve read Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe and Life of a Counterfeiter, by Yasushi Inoue.
    Is it just the current fad for grief-lit?
    What I’d love to read is a story of some Bolsie J-feminist making waves. A quick look at Wikipedia’s Feminism in Japan shows what an interesting history it is, and the potential for a really terrific novel about some of its most prominent women or for novels about the issues persisting today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting that you mention Kenzaburō Ōe as I’ve been doing some reading about this lonely-lit phenomenon, and Ōe is particularly dismissive about it, concerned about the dumbing-down of Japanese writing and readers and referring to these authors as being “content to exist within a late adolescent or post adolescent subculture”.

      And now you’ve got me curious about Bolsie J-feminism!

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    2. Oops, that’s Bolshie (not Bolsie), not in its Bolshevik sense but in its ironic use for bold, combative activists (often but not always women) who excite disapproval by conformists especially old Tories.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. I do have the feeling that publishers have jumped onto this latest trend coming out of Japan – eccentric loners yearning for connection and failing – or else comfort reads, which still feature odd characters, but perhaps more quirky or geeky in a benign way. I don’t think that’s necessarily a fashion in Japan, but more a case of what is getting translated here.

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      1. It’s interesting… one of our writers (Robbie Arnott, Limberlost) has been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize which I don’t usually attend to, but of course I checked their press release which trumpets ‘stories of alienated youth’. (Which BTW is not at all how I would describe Limberlost, which is a beautiful coming-of-age novel about resilience and hope.)
        So it seems that these dreary stories are a ‘thing’. I have no idea who wants to read them.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I guess that sense of feeling lost as one embarks on adult life is a universal theme – think all those tortured young poets of years gone by. And given that we know that Limberlost is so much more than that, I take heart that some of the other books longlisted might also be more/go further than the ‘alienated youth’ tag. Certainly I had no idea that the Nell Stevens book was about George Sand & Frédéric Chopin. The cover had not tempted me to pick it up at work at all – now I will.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m intrigued by this too, odd behaviour and loneliness certainly seems to feature in a lot of Japanese films as well as novels – thanks for a great review!

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    1. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit since finishing this book. In the 60’s thanks to American movies and lit, young adults were viewed as rebels, often without a cause. Bucking the system, their parents, traditional post-war values etc.

      Go back even further – 200 yrs to those mad, sad romantic poets, often rebelling against their parents politics and religious views resulting in messy, tangled, non-traditional relationships.

      Maybe this latest gen of alientated youth doesn’t know what to rail against? These stories seem to suggest that they are just lost and too weary of it all to even rebel.

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  4. This does sound intriguing! I’ll keep an eye out for it. I’m really curious about how this plays out.

    In totally unrelated thoughts, in my hometown we had the Purple Lady, who of course had everything purple — house, car, clothes, toilet paper, husband (he was happy to go along with it). She was a lovely person and very active in the community, so you saw her around quite a bit. There was an international program my family participated in where we would get Japanese exchange students for a month, and I would drive them by the Purple Lady’s house and they would be very impressed — though obviously not as impressed as they were by the Madonna Inn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Every community has its eccentrics and characters; I’d certainly be keen to read a book about the growing number of young adults in Japan who cosplay – I wonder if they are rebelling against reality as we know it?

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  5. Some books get to you after you have finished them. Your review is great, I think I have to read this one. I want to read more Japanese authors and have created a list with suggestions. This one will go there.

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