cover image Mina’s Matchbox

Mina’s Matchbox

Yoko Ogawa, trans. from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. Pantheon, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-0-593-31608-5

In Ogawa’s captivating latest (after The Memory Police), a Japanese woman looks back 30 years to 1972, the year she stayed with her aunt’s family in the coastal town of Ashiya, and reflects on the secrets she uncovered there. Tomoko is 12 when she leaves her home in Tokyo while her widowed mother attends a course for dressmaking. In Ashiya, she’s dazzled by her handsome half-German, half-Japanese uncle, the owner of a soft drink company, who drives her from the train station to his magnificent house, where she’s charmed by her asthmatic cousin Mina, who collects matchboxes and writes stories based on their cover designs. Even more impressive than the family’s mansion is the pygmy hippopotamus they keep as a pet. Tomoko and Mina bond over the books Tomoko borrows for them at the local library and they share a devotion to the hippo, on whose back Mina rides to school. But Tomoko’s joy and wonder are tempered by Mina’s chronic health problems and by the discoveries she makes about her aunt’s secret drinking habit and where her uncle disappears to for days at a time. The revelations are described with cool and subtle precision, and Ogawa pulls off the rare feat of making childhood memories both credible and provocative. Readers will be hypnotized. (Aug.)