There is an inexplicable comfort in reading a book that talks about books. It makes you travel down memory lane to revisit your journey as a reader and a book lover. You are gripped by a fuzzy familiarity and nostalgia. Days at the Morisaki Bookshop is a bibliophile’s delight and reaffirms the reader’s faith in the life-changing power of books. Originally published in Japanese, it won the Chiyoda Literary Prize in 2008 and was a commercial success. The book was later adapted into a film.

The female protagonist, Takako, is struggling with heartbreak. Her boyfriend’s betrayal has hit her hard. She has resigned from her workplace as they were in the same company. Trapped in an unfamiliar abyss of great pain, sleeping becomes a coping mechanism. But an unexpected phone call from Satoru, her long-lost uncle, changes the course of her life.

In the company of books

She isn’t particularly fond of him. He seems rather odd and eccentric to her. Nonetheless, she accepts his proposal to help him at his bookshop in Tokyo. This secondhand bookstore established by her great-grandfather eventually becomes her refuge. She buries herself in a damp room on the second floor that smells of used musty books. Her 25 years of life always struck her as just “adequate”, but Morisaki bookshop is where her “real life” begins in the company of about 6,000 used books.

The bookstore is situated in Jimbocho, which is famous for its secondhand bookshops that stand juxtaposed against bigger bookshop chains and large office buildings. The quaintness of this “wonderland of secondhand books” enchants her with a “subtle impact”. She gradually settles in the area that has her family legacy and has a historical connection with the bygone Taisho, Showa, and Meiji eras. Works of literary giants like Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Natsume Sōseki Soseki, Ogai Mori and others keep her riveted to the bookshop.

In fact, this novel can easily serve as an introductory source of Japanese literature to readers who are not unfamiliar with it. Interesting encounters with customers and neighbourhood residents also take a dig at modern society – how computer games and shallow mangas have overtaken the book-reading culture and made the book business unlucrative.

The circle of life

Even before she realises it, Takako’s life flutters forward into a zone of transition. She discovers the bibliophile in her, makes new friends, confronts her insecurities and forges genuine human relationships. The circle of life manifests itself in the relationship Takako shares with Satoru. She learns about Satoru’s depressing teenage phase and how her birth led him to “a kind of epiphany” around that time. “Mystery of life” filled his heart with warmth and excitement to break out of his cage.

This revelation changes Takako’s feelings towards her uncle. It gives her the courage and inspiration to face her fear and step into the real world with an honest heart. Uncle and niece gradually build a solid bond, which becomes the source of Takako’s strength.

The book is a buoyant read, interspersed with thought-provoking life lessons. It is worthwhile to be reminded, “No matter where you go, or how many books you read, you still know nothing, you haven’t seen anything…like that Santoka Taneda poem, the one that goes, ‘On and on, in and in, and still the blue-green mountains.’”

Satoru is struggling with a personal loss as well. His wife Momoko left him without any apparent reason. The second part of the book deals with Momoko’s reappearance after five years. This subplot details the tenderness and fragility of human relationships. Takako’s maturity and sensitivity help the couple reunite. The novel manoeuvres through the unhappiness of life and the reader connects with universal human experiences in this immensely readable book. One can almost hear Tiger, the feline protagonist from another Japanese best seller Cat Who Saved Books remind us, “Books have tremendous power.”

Yagisawa’s debut novel evokes nostalgia by placing the fictional Morisaki Bookshop in Tokyo’s real-life book town “Jimbocho”. It is named after the samurai Jimbo Nagaharu who resided there in the 17th century. In the wake of the Meiji restoration of 1868, many universities opened in the vicinity of Jimbocho. This led to the proliferation of shops selling academic texts. Later with the mass production of “one yen books” that aimed at making books available to the Japanese public, several second-hand bookstores mushroomed in the area.

The books you read often open up little windows for some light to shine through. It makes you see the brighter side of life, and as Yagisawa reminds us of Motojiro’s Kajii’s words: “The act of seeing is no small thing. To see something is to be possessed by it. Sometimes it carries off a part of you, sometimes it’s your whole soul.”

Days at the Morisaki Bookshop, Satoshi Yagisawa, translated from the Japanese by Eric Ozawa, Manilla Press.