You get two charged stories under one cover in Banana Yoshimoto's slim "Hardboiled & Hard Luck," written in language so simple you might...

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“Hardboiled & Hard Luck”
by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Michael Emmerich
Grove, 149 pp., $21

You get two charged stories under one cover in Banana Yoshimoto’s slim “Hardboiled & Hard Luck,” written in language so simple you might be lulled into thinking there isn’t much going on.

It’s partly true. Plotwise not a whole lot happens, but the atmosphere is as unstable as a vapor of gasoline, ready to ignite. The ethical tangles in both stories create a frisson of disturbance but only subtle revelations.

For Yoshimoto’s writing to be effective, a reader has to accept it as a psychological catalyst, a stone that sets off ripples in water. It’s the experience, not the conclusion, that’s important.

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The first story, “Hardboiled,” is really a traditional Japanese ghost story, recast for the 21st century. A traveler on a lonely trail suddenly finds herself in a strange mind-set where it seems “space itself had bent gelatinously out of shape, so no matter how long I walked I would never make any progress.”

As she continues her hike and spends a dream-snarled night at a shady hotel, her conscience presses on her. She has, unconsciously, set out on the anniversary of her casual breakup with a former same-sex lover and begins mulling her culpability in the young woman’s death. She realizes early on that, “Things that don’t matter at all to one person can hurt another so deeply it seems as bad as dying.”

The second story, “Hard Luck,” looks at the dynamic that develops as the narrator tries to cope with the demise of her sister, Kuni. A cerebral hemorrhage from overwork left Kuni with edema that caused her brainstem functions to cease. She remains hooked up to a respirator, as her family despairs about what to do.

For the narrator of the story, “No matter where I was, I always felt that something inside me was stretched to the limit, and there was no relief.” Denial, avoidance, tentative new attachments, all play out as those close to Kuni struggle imperfectly through their grief.

Sheila Farr is the visual-arts critic for The Seattle Times.