Haunted by loneliness and lost souls? That's the spirit

Strangers, Taichi Yamada, Faber & Faber, £10

GOOD ghost stories are a modern rarity. It has even become fashionable for them to be non-scary, so reliant have we become on stretching the literary uses of disembodied spirits and other phantasms.

In a tradition-conscious culture such as Japan’s however, there are always opportunities for the established to combine with the contemporary. In this case a modern Tokyo apartment building becomes the setting for a ghost story told in the time-honoured Japanese confessional style.

Strangers is the English-language debut of Taichi Yamada, and has won the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize in Japan for the best human-interest novel of last year. It’s not a late-night-by-candlelight ghost story, but instead probes the oddities of loneliness. The hero, Haruda, doesn’t even know that he’s being haunted most of the time. He may be dining with ghosts; he may be drinking with ghosts; he may even be having sex with one.

Haruda, a recently divorced TV scriptwriter, is haunted by a small cast of unlikely individuals, including a flirty but tipsy neighbour. Suffering from nothing more concrete than isolation, Haruda begins to move between real-world relationships and those with the ghosts, questioning his sanity and wondering if his soul is lost. Almost addicted to the black melancholy of his supernatural encounters, he confesses: "What I needed to fear was my own self."

Haruda’s bafflement is brought on by painful meetings with his dead parents. The question is whether the ghosts are a threat to his life or a comfortable screen in front of which he’s fantasising. Today’s ghosts are the fabrications of the lonely; secret fears and even deliberate self-delusions. Haruda’s ghosts are like faint flaws in his own anti-social behaviour, making Strangers a vivid representation in plain language of what it feels like to be isolated.

The most novel aspect of the story is the metaphorical role of the ghosts, delivering their victims up to a self-immolating need for company. Strangers is written with a tone that reveals great emotional discernment. While Haruda is thrilled to see his parents so young and pretty, he is aware that as ghosts they are only there for his sake. Haruda even fears for his ghosts, knowing they are "destined to vanish once and for all from this world the moment my heart ceased turning in their direction".

On top of this, the empty apartment building in downtown Tokyo, where the book is set, is anxiously spooky. Fluorescent lighting, empty lifts and the sound of distant vehicles replace the haunting mists of the pre-modern ghost story. Considering solitude as one of the prime themes of the busy city, and depicting it as prey to supernatural elements, is both moving and inspiring.

Publishers Faber & Faber are keen to launch Yamada on the same western-bound ticket which has brought us Haruki Murakami and Kenzaburo O, but scriptwriter Yamada - a household name in Japan - writes with more orchestration and purpose than his two better-known countrymen. Until recognition grows, however, comparisons with Murakami and Japanese films such as Ringu are inevitable.

Peter Burnett’s latest novel is Odium