Natsuko Imamura’s The Woman in the Purple Skirt (Translation: Lucy North) is a psychological thriller that is a fast-paced, taut, suspenseful masterpiece that keeps you guessing till the very very end. Eventually when the ending unfolds, it puts everything one has read, assumed and understood in a new light. I literally went back and re-read the book right after I had finished reading it for the first time.
The second time, I took meticulous notes (this is so meta in the context of this book!) in the hope of sharing this absolute delight with other people that might start googling, trying to put together all of the puzzle pieces just like I found myself doing. Skip ahead to find my handwritten notes down below explaining the plot points and the mystery!
First some notes on the book itself. Imamura won the prestigious Akutagawa prize for this book in 2019. The book flap reads —
“…psychological thriller for fans of Convinience Store Woman, the novels of Otessa Moshfegh, and the movies Parasite and Rear Window”
The plot is about a Woman in the Purple skirt who, on most afternoons, sits on the same park bench and eats a cream bun even as the local children in the park try to get her attention. We’re told that a Woman in the Yellow Cardigan is closely watching the Woman in the Purple Skirt. The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan is also our narrator. We’re hear about every little detail in the Woman in the Purple Skirt’s life — what time she takes the bus, what she does for a living, her emotional state, events in her life etc. This is all from the vantage point of the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan.
As the main plot of this suspenseful, often voyueristic tale unfolds, we are also privy to the matter-of-fact social commentary on Japan itself. There is no exposition, there is no monologue, there are no hints to the reader on what to take away. Here we have a ring-side view into working conditions for service industry, hierarchies at workplace, female relationships, financial insecurity, athletes and their life post their peaks, sexual harassment, exploitation in the workplace, loneliness and so on. Even though the topics and themes are so wide-ranging, it does not make the book heavy or unenaging at any point.
This book is one clever, delicious, page-turner and has to be one of my most favorite reads in 2021. I am now going to spoil the book entirely, so reader beware!
This book is marketed as the story of a stalker, a friendship between two women and what not. Sorry to say (or may be not so sorry!) that it is none of that. The blurbs on the back of the book are outright lies. Made me wonder if those people bothered to even read and understand the book.
Let us break down what we know about the Woman in the Purple Skirt and the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan.
Note: P<number> denotes the page number.
And the Woman in the Purple Skirt would turn to face the camera….But then, briefly, something else would flash up in the camera’s field of view. What the hell is that?
“Oh no! It’s not. Is it?!”
“It’s the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan!”
The big revelation for me at the end of the book was that there is just one character in the book - the Woman in the Purple Skirt is the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan who is the bronze medalist ice-skater.
An underrated gem of a detail -- Yellow and Purple are on the opposite sides of the color wheel. Two sides of the same coin!