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Hiromi Kawakami: 三度目The (Third Love)

In my review o Kawakami’s ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒険 (UK: The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino; US: The Ten Loves of Nishino), I started by saying Love can be difficult. Person A loves Person B but the love is not entirely (or even at all) reciprocated. Even when they do love one another, problems can occur. Things change, life happens. However, when it does not work out, there is a lingering memory of a past love, a memory that can last for a lifetime. This is what this book is about. It is also what this book is about.

Our heroine/narrator is Riko. She falls in love at an early age, specifically when she is two. He is Naruya Harada, known as Naa-chan You may wonder what a child that young can know of love. And you’d be right to wonder. I myself had no idea why I loved him so. Though younger than her father, he had been a friend of her father – same school, same university, same football team – and was a regular visitor to the house. Riko was an only child and had had a happy childhood. When she went to kindergarten, she was not happy. She made no friends, found the other children too boisterous and hated the school lunches. The only friend she made was Mr Takaoka, the caretaker. She got on well with him. He was still quite young and had trained as Buddhist monk but given up. The other children despised him.

When she is older Naa-chan moves away to Kyushu (she and her family live in Tokyo). She learns that he has a girlfriend as they have been writing to each other. She is twenty-four when he finally returned to Tokyo and he is surprised to find not the girl he knew but an attractive woman. One thing leads to another and soon they are engaged and then married. They live with her parents. However she soon learns that he has not made a clean break with the woman from Kyushu.

Riko is learning the koto with Michiko-sensei and it is she who suggests they should get a place of their own but Riko says that both her parents like having Naa-chan around.

Then she suspects there is yet another woman. He wasn’t the type who jumped into bed with whomever happened to be around, that’s for sure. Yet, as I said before, his nature made it impossible for him to reject a woman with whom he had shared a heartfelt conversation.. Then she finds out that he is even seeing Michiko-sensei. It gets worse when he has a fling with the fiancée of his company’s vice-president. When that ended he was devastated and, when she found out, so was she. Naa-chan no longer cared for me, first of all. Beyond that, though, an even deeper sadness that I had lost all desire to look after him, even though I had once been happy to place my heart at his feet.

At this time Mr Takaoka, the former school caretaker, reappeared in her life. He had been travelling round the country, living rough. Mr Takaoka helps her and tells her that she can learn magic to help her.

She now lives her ordinary life but also lives a life in her dreams. In her dreams she is living many years ago. She came from a big family and one source of income for such families is to sell their daughters to teahouses in Tokyo. She becomes what we woulc call a geisha but Kawakami does not use the word, rather having a series of expressions depending on the geisha’s status. It is not a particularly easy life – step out of line and the punishment is brutal – but she seems to like it and is soon immersed in it. She discovers a lot more about sex, for example. All the time she is discussing what is going on with Mr Takaoka. Eventually she meets a former samurai, Mr Takada. He seems to be a bit like Mr Takaoka and it is clear that the boundaries between her real life and her dream life are very fluid. One of the strict rules is that the women must not fall in love with a man as, of course, they must be available for many men and get as much money out of them as possible. We see what happens when one woman does fall in love with her client and pays a very heavy price. Riko’s alter ego – she is called Shungetsu – falls for Mr Takada and they plan to elope. En route we learn who Mr Takada really is. He is Prince Takaoka, a historical character, who was also the hero of a book I recently reviewed.

Back in the real world she is still with Naa-chan but things are not entirely happy. I am still in love with Takada. I wish I had spent my life with him. Fled with him to the ends of the earth. and I didn’t doubt that our marriage would bring happiness. Now, fiinally, I have to accept that the knight on the white charger is just a human being, and that I am not the princess who lives happily ever after.

Things get more complicated when, at least in her dream world, when she moves much further back in time and, initially, she is the ten year old maid in waiting to a princess. We follow both her life and the life of her princess. At least some of the characters are clearly historical. Takada/Takaoka also appears in another guise. In short we have Riko with two past lives meeting Mr Takaoka regularly in real life but also in both her dream lives.

All of this takes place against what is happening in her real life – her not always smooth relationship with her husband, the birth of her son Toji and, later, her decision to get a job. At the same time she discourses on the many complications of love. She considers the situation in the present and also in the past and compares the three variations and not only as regards love but also the role of women in the different eras and relationship between the sexes. Heian aristocrats followed a single path. Today, however, a hundred married couples will follow a hundred different paths. Freedom is great, no doubt about it. But it brings its own complications.

Love is complicated. I think we all know that. Of course it is more complicated for Riko as she has a love life both in the present and the past – two pasts, in fact. Two of the men who have vast love lives – her husband and Ariwara no Narihira, the husband of the princess in her second past dream life, have many lovers but it does not seem to make them happy, far from it, in fact. In short, at least in Kawakami’s view, there is no easy answer, whether in the present or the past, no straightforward route to the ideal love life.

Publishing history

First published in 2020 by Chuokoron-Shinsha
First English translation by Granta/Europa in 2024
Translated by Ted Goossen