With a swift rattle on the computer keyboard and a bonus gift made out of a ball of wool, an extraordinary librarian gives book recommendations that guide five individuals wandering through life to suitable paths. Michiko Aoyama’s What You Are Looking For Is in the Library, shortlisted for the Japan Booksellers’ Award in 2021 and newly translated by Alison Watts, presents the loosely intertwined lives of Tomoka, Ryo, Natsumi, Hiroya and Masao—all spontaneous visitors of the Hatori Community House library and its librarian, Ms Komachi.
Each chapter follows one of these five customers in a fictional ward of Tokyo that materialises through Aoyama’s conversational prose. The characters are all at different points in age, careers, relationships and lives. Yet, Ms Komachi’s initially questionable reading suggestions—such as a Japanese children’s picture book for 21-year-old Tomoka who requests books on how to use a computer, or a book about the wonder of plants for Ryo who asks for books about starting a business—lead the five characters to similar situations, namely their prospective contentment with where their lives are headed.
Along with the perplexing titles she encourages her customers to borrow, Ms Komachi’s handmade felted wool souvenirs, given with little to no explanation by Ms Komachi but described in detail by Aoyama, possess the power to steer her visitors away from thinking that “life is a linear journey that stretches straight ahead of us.” For instance, she gives a plane “with a tiny grey body, white wings and a cool green tail” to Hiroya, encouraging him to make changes to his environment, and a crab shaped like a squarish “red fluffy ball” to Masao, inviting him to shift his perspective, to walk sideways.
In this way, Aoyama centers the story on giving and receiving, whether it be objects, food, wisdom or love. These exchanges may seem mundane and simple, but the sensory experiences of hearing Ms Komachi’s “Shoo-tatatatata!” when she types up her advised reading list, or tasting the “right amount of saltiness” from a rice ball made by someone else, make these give-and-takes engaging and intimate. Although onomatopoeias are famously dissimilar in Japanese and English, Aoyama’s use of audible, tactile and visual language is captivating, especially as Watts abstains from using the English equivalent to Japanese expressions of sound, evident in the incorporation of exclamations such as “Kyaah!” to express one’s surprise.
Each encounter with Ms Komachi begins with her asking: “What are you looking for?” To this question, Hiroya’s first thought, because of his status as a “NEET,” an acronym commonly used in Japan to indicate those who are not in employment, education or training, was:
I’m still searching. Searching for somewhere I can be accepted as I am. Just one place is all I need. Somewhere to be at peace.
In contrast, Natsumi has multiple things that pop into her head, as she thinks to herself:
What am I looking for? I could give many answers: my future path in life, a way of releasing my frustrations, the patience to raise a child, et cetera. But where would I find them? And, besides, this was not a counselling room.
Like Aoyama herself, Natsumi was a magazine editor. But soon after she became a mother, a transfer from the editorial team to the information resources department was imposed on her on the grounds that “it’s too hard to work as an editor with a baby.” She struggles to move on from the despair of losing her identity as an editor, until her visit to the Hatori Community House library.
Although Natsumi claims it not to be, the library in What You Are Looking For Is in the Library becomes somewhat of a counseling room. A library’s familiar yet increasingly neglected charm, its availability as a place to ground oneself in the countless number of resources and where a mysterious, magical librarian may be ready to give striking recommendations, can be realized.
In getting to know and live the thoughts of five different characters through the diaristic tone of the first-person narration, the foreign location of Hatori becomes a recognizable, cozy site that is easy to imagine oneself in. Gradually finding out the faint yet significant links between the five protagonists is exhilarating—it demonstrates Aoyama’s undeniable ability to draw up a fascinating narrative, and her definite understanding of meaningful coincidences and connections.