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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mina's Matchbox

Ogawa Yoko

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Title: Mina's Matchbox
Author: Ogawa Yoko
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2024)
Length: 280 pages
Original in: 280
Availability: Mina's Matchbox - US
Mina's Matchbox - UK
Mina's Matchbox - Canada
La marche de Mina - France
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Japanese title: ミーナの行進
  • Originally serialized in Yomiuri Shimbun in 2005
  • Translated by Stephen Snyder

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Our Assessment:

B+ : gentle, agreeable year-in-the-lives novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Mina's Matchbox is narrated by Tomoko, looking back, some three decades later, to the early 1970s, when she was twelve and went to live with relatives in Ashiya (which lies between Kobe and Osaka) for a year. Her mother, who was raising her alone after the death of Tomoko's father, enrolls in a school in Tokyo for a year-long course "to improve her skills as a dressmaker, with the goal of securing more stable work", and Tomoko spends that year in Ashiya.
       Tomoko goes to live with her uncle's family. her uncle has followed in his father and grandfather's footsteps, running a local beverage company whose best-known product is: "Fressy, a radium-fortified soft drink that was said to be beneficial to the digestion". Others in the household include German-born Grandmother Rosa, Tomoko's aunt, and Tomoko's cousin Mina, as well as live-in maid Yoneda and gardener Kobayashi; her aunt and uncle also have another child, son Ryūichi, who is away for most of the novel, studying in Germany. And then there's the family pet -- Pochiko, a pygmy hippopotamus, which her uncle got as a present on his tenth birthday; it comes from Liberia and: "it cost more than ten cars"; it has lived on the property since before the Second World War.
       Mina is practically the same age as Tomoko, but sickly; because of her asthma she mostly avoids riding in motor vehicles -- riding Pochiko to and from school instead. And:

We always knew when she was about from the rustling of the box of matches she kept in her pocket. The matchboxes were her precious possessions, her talismans.
     Mina's obsession with matchboxes was not due to some sort of pyromania. The fact that she had an exquisite gift for striking a match was the result of having matchboxes always at hand, but that wasn't really the point. What fascinated Mina were the pictures printed on the boxes.
       She collects the matchboxes -- she: "would build a box for each matchbox and write its story inside". She eventually reveals her store of matchboxes and stories to Tomoko, and several of the short stories are presented over the course of the novel as well.
       A big reader, Mina tasks Tomoko with getting books from the library for her, with the librarian, whom Tomoko calls Mr.Turtleneck, assuming that Tomoko is the one reading the books and asking her about them when she returns them (and leading him to consider her: "the smartest middle schooler in Ashiya"). Tomoko is not quite as avid a reader as Mina and generally does not read the books, but they do play a small role in the narrative, giving a better sense of Mina as well, as she reads books such as Kawabata's The House of Sleeping Beauties, Franny and Zooey, and First Love (as well as, for example, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).
       Just like Tomoko's occasional brief interactions with Mr.Turtleneck, Mina regularly has short exchanges with the delivery boy who bring around the weekly order of Fressy -- the family consumes great quantities of it --, as he is her main source of matchboxes, bringing her any of interest that he finds. These aren't romantic interactions, but there's a sense of childhood crushes here.
       Other family quirks include Tomoko's aunt's obsession with hunting down typographical errors -- always writing to publishers to make them aware of them -- and then there's also Tomoko's uncle, absent for long periods of the time.
       There are a variety of significant events that happen during this year Tomoko spends in Ashiya -- notably the 1972 Munich Olympics, with the girls having become great volleyball fans and eagerly following the Japanese national team on its quest for gold; the terrorist attack at those Olympics also leads Tomoko to learn more about Grandmother Rosa and her German family. Other dramatic events include a seaside expedition, a burglary, the Giacobini meteor shower -- the girls are allowed to stay up all night to watch it --, and a fire in the nearby mountains that looks like it might spread; Mina also has a number of asthma attacks, and is hospitalized for quite some time. Most of these events are, however, in one way or another anticlimactic -- Ogawa ratchets up some suspense, but then pulls it back; a kind of day-to-day normality dominates. Yes, it's one with quirks and tensions -- from the aunt's drinking and smoking and the uncle's absence to the presence of a hippopotamus in the backyard and Mina's huge matchbox collection -- but the general sense is one of a comfortable domestic normality.
       Both Mina and Tomoko mature over the course of the year, but a sense of preparing for the next stage in life rather than a true coming of age predominates -- Ogawa not trying to make too much of events, but rather presenting a more realistic picture, a plausible year-in-the-lives story (insofar a novel with a pet pygmy hippopatmus can be considered realistic). There are big events and changes, certainly at the conclusion, also involving the hippopotamus and Mina --the novel's original title translates as 'Mina's March', and it does build up to her setting out a bit more on her own (literally marching off, near the end -- though, again, this isn't quite as dramatic as it sounds). Tomoko also shows flashes of some independence, including one adventurous outing on her own -- but while, for example, the family was clearly concerned about where she had gone off to, when she finally returns they're satisfied with knowing she is safe rather than pressing her to reveal what she had been up to.
       Mina's Matchbox was first published in serialized form, and it has that gently undulating feel of much serialized fiction -- Ogawa not really offering cliffhangers, but with a bit of suspense regularly built up and then more or less resolved. Part of what she does very well is that the resolutions are not complete; her picture is a realistic domestic one in presenting a household which functions in its own way, with little peculiarities simply accepted and dealt with. There's often concern -- about Mina's health, in particular -- but no hysteria; matters are dealt with as they come up -- or, in some cases, left somewhat unresolved (as is, after all, often the case in real life).
       Mina's Matchbox is not a tight novel; it feels agreeably stretched out -- again, likely a consequence of its serialized origins --, the story ambling along, with tensions regularly resolved. Yet there's also a lot to it -- more layers than there first seem, from the fact that Tomoko is writing from thirty some years on to the examples of Mina's matchbox-stories that are woven into the story to the sharp character-portraits of those in the household (such as the aunt: "pencil stub in hand, puffing incessantly on her cigarette and tracing her finger across pages of characters, sifting one by one through her grains of sand"). Ogawa does all this very well, and it makes for a satisfying if somewhat low-key novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 May 2024

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Mina's Matchbox: Reviews: Other books by Ogawa Yōko under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Ogawa Yōko (小川 洋子) was born in 1962.

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© 2024 the complete review

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