60 pages 2 hours read

Kazuo Ishiguro

A Family Supper

Fiction | Short Story | YA | Published in 1983

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Summary: “A Family Supper”

Kazuo Ishiguro is an English and Japanese author who is most well-known for prizewinning novels such as The Remains of the Day (1989) and Never Let Me Go (2005), the latter of which was adapted into a film in 2010. “A Family Supper” is a 1983 short story that was originally published in a volume of Ishiguro’s works, titled Firebird 2: Writing Today.

The short story begins when an unnamed narrator returns to his homeland of Japan after years abroad in California. After his father picks him up from the airport, the narrator learns how his mother died two years prior. She died from eating fugu, a species of poisonous blowfish caught off the Pacific shores of Japan. The blowfish contains two sacks of poison that must be carefully removed during preparation, or the poison will spread through the fish and kill those who consume it. Due to the need for expert preparation, fugu is often eaten as a delicacy. According to the narrator, there is no way to determine if fugu has been prepared correctly. Ishiguro writes, “The proof is, as it were, in the eating” (1). The narrator reveals that his mother has always been wary of eating fugu for this reason. She eventually decided to eat fugu to avoid offending a childhood friend and died as a result.

When they arrive home, the narrator’s father asks whether he is hungry and says they will eat as soon as his younger sister, Kikuko, arrives. Though he has been away for a while, the narrator knows that his father’s firm has collapsed. The narrator offers his condolences for his father’s business failures, but notably does not offer them for his mother’s death or for his prolonged absence. His father tells him that his business partner, Watanabe, killed himself after the firm’s failure because “[h]e didn’t wish to live with the disgrace” (2). The conversation between father and son is awkward and stilted, as if they are strangers. Instead of easy-flowing discussion, their conversation is continuously “punctuated by long pauses” (1). The narrator’s father tells him that he’s pleased he is home. Despite their estrangement, he hopes the narrator will stay for more than just a short visit. Kikuko eventually arrives and greets the narrator and their father. Kikuko has been away from home studying at a university in Osaka. She is uncomfortable around their father, answering his questions “with short formal replies” and “giggl[ing] nervously” throughout (2). Their father eventually excuses himself to make supper.

When their father leaves for the kitchen, Kikuko relaxes and begins chatting with her brother. The siblings take a stroll through their garden and chat about their lives. Kikuko smokes and reveals that she keeps this habit a secret from their father. She tells the narrator that she has a boyfriend and is contemplating moving to America with him after graduating. Kikuko admits to the narrator that she’s not sure if she wants to leave all her friends behind in Osaka just yet. The narrator confirms that he ended his own relationship with a woman named Vicki in California. According to him, “There’s nothing much left for me now in California” (4). Despite this, the narrator repeatedly states that he is unsure if he wants to move back to Japan.

The siblings begin to talk about the old well in their garden. They used to believe it was haunted when they were children. The narrator remembers seeing an old woman ghost in a white kimono who passed through the garden at night. Their mother told them that the ghost they saw was just an old lady from the neighborhood vegetable store. The narrator tells Kikuko, “She even told me once the old woman had confessed to being the ghost” (4). He never believed his mother, unable to imagine the old lady “clambering over these walls” in the dead of night (4).

Kikuko tells the narrator that Watanabe murdered his wife and two daughters with gas before “he cut his stomach with a meat knife” (4), killing himself. Kikuko peers into the well and says that she does not see a ghost. She accuses the narrator of lying to her when they were children. The narrator explains that the ghost did not live in the well, but in the garden. He points to a small clearing and tells Kikuko, “Just there I saw it. Just there” (5). When Kikuko turns, she does not see anything. According to the narrator, the old woman in the white kimono would just stand there and watch him. Kikuko chides the narrator for trying to scare her. The siblings go inside, and Kikuko reluctantly takes over the cooking while the narrator’s father gives him a tour of the house. The narrator notices that the rooms are all stark and empty. The house feels too big. His father’s belongings have been packed into one room along with some toy battleships that he has been constructing in his spare time. The narrator’s father tells him that it is hard for parents to lose their children, especially to lose them to things that they do not understand. He drops hints that the narrator’s mother may have deliberately killed herself. The narrator’s father also speaks to him about the time he spent in the war. Kikuko calls the family to dinner in the tearoom, and they sit and enjoy a fresh meal of fish.

During the meal, the narrator notices a photograph on the wall of the tearoom that he did not see before. The room is only partially lit by a hanging lamp, and it is difficult for him to see. The photo is of a woman in a white kimono. He asks his father who the woman in the picture is, and his father expresses surprise and anger that the narrator does not recognize his own mother. He tells the narrator that the photo was taken right before his mother’s death. The narrator says he could not see her well in the dark and that she looks a lot older than he remembered.

After dinner, Father asks Kikuko to make a pot of tea. The narrator tells his father that he knows Watanabe took his whole family with him when he killed himself. His father replies that Watanabe’s judgment was impaired because of the firm’s collapse. He tells the narrator that “[t]here are other things besides work” but does not explain what those things may be (9). He invites his son to stay with him in Japan for a while but says that he will doubtlessly want to return to America soon. He expresses his hope that Kikuko will come home to live with him after graduating from university, unaware of her plans to go to America with her boyfriend, or her wish to stay in Osaka with her friends. The father insists that “[t]hings will improve” when Kikuko returns, and the narrator agrees (9). The conversation ends as both men wait for Kikuko to return with the tea.

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