Reviewed by Koi Kye Lee
Title: Good Night Papa, Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere
Author: Simon Rowe
Publisher and date of publication: Atlas & Jones. Co (2016)
Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere is a collection of stories written by Simon Rowe. His stories have appeared in publications such as TIME Asia, The New York Times, The Australian, The South China Morning Post, among others. Rowe is currently teaching creative writing and media studies to English language learners at university level.
Born and raised in New Zealand and Australia, Rowe has lived in Japan for more than twenty years. He writes from Himeji, a city in the Kansai region. The city is famous for the spectacular Himejijo, the Himeji Castle. Perched on a hilltop, the castle is also known as the White Heron Castle (Shirasagijo) due to its elegant, white appearance.
The title story in this collection, “Good Night Papa”, which was adapted for screenplay and subsequently won the Asian Short Screenplay Contest in the United States in 2013, is also set in Himeji.
It tells the story of Matsumoto, known as ‘Papa’ to his clientele. An Elvis Presley fan who dreams of visiting Graceland (the mansion of the King of Rock and Roll), Papa Matsumoto is a chauffeur with huge debts who keeps to himself. He is a man of few words. He faces misfortunes and is forced to confront his past after picking up a mysterious young girl in a kimono who reminds him of his daughter, Mio.
Papa Matsumoto’s story is the first in the line-up consisting of fifteen stories in Rowe’s book. It also happens to be one of my favourite stories. “Good Night Papa” may come across as having a very simple plot but the ending is breathtakingly astonishing. I was automatically drawn into the lives of the main characters as each scene had a cinematic quality. It also reminded me of the game — L.A. Noire— a neo-noir detective action adventure game.
Another entrancing story is “The Girl Who Made The Kungfu Master Cry”. Set in Henan, China, this particular tale resonates deep within my being as it focuses on perseverance and patience — values which both my mother and maternal grandmother instilled in me as a young child. I could resonate when Master Wu Xiaobo addresses his stubborn French student, Ariel Bini with,“The true meaning of kungfu is the perception through hard work.”
Rowe is brilliant in his imaginative manipulation of the narrative. He nudges the readers to think. His characters are presented with a problem and the solution they arrive at, despite being unique, is often surprising and simple. In “Weed”, an unusually quick-witted waitress, Ana, acts to rescue using the circumstances to her advantage when their town is overrun by a tide full of seaweed. Mrs Nora Patterson in “Baby Grand” is another character who is noteworthy in using her eccentricity and charm to manipulate the situation to her advantage.
Rowe has a simple and yet distinctive writing style. He is able to tell a story lucidly. Each story is unparalleled, and his effortless telling evokes vivid images and empathy. Though Simon Rowe’s stories are written in Japan, I found myself transported to various places — a beach town in Mexico, the outback in Australia, an old marketplace in Morocco and a barbershop full of ninjas in an old neighbourhood in Japan. All these places came alive through his compelling storytelling.
Rowe’s stories exemplify that difficulties faced in life are unpredictable, but there are ways to triumph over adversity. He also emphasises the importance of perseverance and faith, a value-based book. Although there were a couple of stories that were a little mundane (“The Finke River Mail” and “Miniature Pineapples”), most of the short stories in this collection are excellent reads.
Rowe’s Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere can be described by the oft-quoted dialogue from the movie, Forrest Gump(1994), “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are gonna get.” The stories come as a surprise. They are a light and an easy read before bedtime or while on commute.
Koi Kye Lee is a senior journalist with an appetite for current affairs and politics. She has worked in both Malaysia and Singapore. Her first fiction was published in Write Out Loud, a compilation of short stories by young Malaysian writers.
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