Winner of the prestigious Akutagawa literary prize, The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura is currently cresting the wave of novels by en vogue female Japanese writers. Set in an unnamed city in Japan, it tells the story of a narrator who refers to herself as the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan. Leading an isolated life, her only diversion appears to be a fascination with a neighbourhood local, the aforementioned Woman in the Purple Skirt. What initially appears to the reader as no more than an odd girl crush, becomes much darker, as our becardiganed storyteller decides to play puppet master with Purple Skirt’s life.
Yellow Cardigan works as a hotel cleaner, leading a somewhat humdrum, predictable and cash-strapped life. Without a partner, friends, or close family, this lonely soul becomes obsessed with the Woman in the Purple Skirt, who’s something of a local celebrity for her unwaveringly rigid routine. Clad always and ever in her purple skirt, on certain days she can be found visiting a local bakery, where she purchases a custard filled bun, sits on the same bench in the local park and consumes it in a very precise way, while gazing into the middle distance.
Yellow Cardigan is particularly struck by the way Purple Skirt seems to move through town, swerving ‘all oncoming people, very much the way an ice-skater glides around on the ice.’ The spectral glide of her walk adds to the impression of her hovering outside of the urban bustle. Showing a striking lack of self-awareness, Yellow Cardigan thinks ‘She reminds me of somebody. But who?’
Ascertaining that Purple Skirt drifts in and out of temporary menial employment and desperate to make a connection with her, Yellow Cardigan decides that the solution is to find Purple Skirt a cleaning position at her own hotel. This she attempts by leaving a job search magazine on the bench, with the relevant job circled in pen. Feeling that Purple Skirt neglects her appearance, Yellow Cardigan surreptitiously leaves shampoo sachets by her front door. This, she feels, should sort out Purple Skirt’s dry, stiff hair, and secure her the role at interview.
It does, and this is when storm clouds begin to gather. Not only does Purple Skirt get the job but she becomes popular with her colleagues and progresses to a supervisory role in record time. Her newfound confidence and glossy hair even appears to imbue her with a degree of sexual allure. This is not the scenario that Yellow Cardigan had envisaged.
Imamura provides moments of dark humour and sympathy for this naive and lonely woman, but as events take a complicated turn, the grim consequences of her stalkerish manipulation become clear.
A pointed depiction of urban isolation and female low-paid work culture in patriarchal Japan, this is a disquieting and compelling read for fans of contemporary Japanese literature.
If you like this, see our review of the excellent Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.
The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura is published by Faber & Faber, 224 pages.