2 min read

Review: "A Family Supper"

For a book group I'm in (book), I recently read the short story "A Family Supper" by Kazuo Ishiguro. It's a good short story. I recommend it, it's a good short story and well-written. It's a nice character piece for three characters at once (a family) which is damn impressive for a short story that weighs in at about 7 pages. You should read it.

The rest of this post will have spoilers. I'm going to crib heavily from my discussion response here in reviewing it.

Quick synopsis: The protagonist is returning home from California to his family in Tokyo for his mother's funeral. His mother died of fugu poisoning after eating with a friend who hadn't prepared the fish properly. It's not pleasant at all. He meets up with his father at the airport and his sister Kikuko at the house. They spend an evening together.

This is a dialog-heavy story, yet it still manages to have tension. That's I think because of the setup. There's a bunch of exposition and setup that points in ominous directions. There's all this setup of the mother dying after eating improperly prepared fugu (being too polite to refuse), the story about the father's business partner committing suicide and – we learn later – taking the whole family with him, and then the father serving them fish. It didn't all line up for me until the page that it's subverted, which made it work really well.

The writer does all this setup that looks like setting up for a certain ending, but doesn't. It looks like the father is going to kill them all, but he doesn't, saying: "The collapse of the firm was a great blow to him. I fear it must have weakened his judgment." I think the way it didn't line up is what pulled me through to the story. The dialog on its own might have failed to engage, but with this ominous backdrop I found myself pulled through, wondering where it was going to lead.

I don't feel cheated, though. I like that the father doesn't actually kill them all. Killing them would have been entirely in line with what had set up, and it could have been mildly satisfying, but the fact that he doesn't makes him a more textured and interesting character. I think the sense of "bad things coming" pays off in other ways – in recognizing the photo at the dinner, and in the story's lonely ending.

(No, I won't spoil the photo. Read the story!)

But also, the characters are pretty great on their own.

I like the way the texture of the family and family members comes out in the dialog and description. There's a sense that they are all their own characters with their own relationships and histories we get a peek at, between the protagonist and his mystery past in California, his sister Kikuko with her friends and her smoking and her boyfriend she's not all that crazy about, his lonely father learning to cook and building these model warships.

I also appreciate the concise way the exposition is delivered. You get enough to get a sense of the ominous without feeling like "oh, more exposition," and then it's on to more action/dialog.

Overall, a good story. If you still haven't read it – go read it!