The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura

The Woman in the Purple Skirt, recently translated from Japanese, is one of the more memorable psychological novels I have read in a while. In it, the narrator, the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan, is always watching the titular Woman in the Purple Skirt. At first, I didn’t see anything unseemingly about this since the Woman in the Purple Skirt is notorious in her little town for her unkempt appearance and her inability to hold on to a job. So when the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan began to get involved in Woman in the Purple Skirt’s life, leaving handpicked job advertisements for the other woman to find, I thought this was out of concern. But it soon began to feel unsettling, especially when the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan wouldn’t give up her mission to see the Woman in the Purple Skirt employed. Who would go to such lengths to help out a stranger they have never spoken to? Only then it dawned on me the depth of the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan’s loneliness.

As the story progresses, the Woman in the Purple Skirt ends up joining the same hotel the narrator works at as a housekeeper. Despite the narrator’s attempts, she still doesn’t get a chance to speak to the Woman in the Purple Skirt, so she contents herself to just following and watching. The author isn’t forthcoming with a reason for this obsession. I’d hazard a guess that the narrator sees a kindred spirit in the other woman – shy and lonely just like her – although we soon realize this isn’t entirely true either when the Woman in the Purple Skirt begins an affair with her married boss and quickly climbs the rungs at her job. When the affair runs its course in a predictable fashion, and the two women’s paths finally intertwine, the story reaches its climax. But here, in a twist, the “hunter” becomes the “prey!”

While I really enjoyed The Woman in the Purple Skirt, I’m not sure if this would be everyone’s cup of tea. Unlike most Western psychological novels I’ve read, here, there’s no in-your-face-kind-of-danger that would keep you at the edge of your seat. You feel the menace, and know there’s danger lurking in the background, but there’s no immediacy. It even ends in a subdued, life-comes-full-circle manner, without a bang or police sirens. Subtle writing like that creeps me out more and gets to me every time. Recommended for those who enjoy the same.

4 stars. 

Note: Many thanks to Penguin for sending me a review copy of The Woman in the Purple Skirt.

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