A sin­gle mother’s strug­gle to ex­ert con­trol

This brac­ing, of­ten breathtaking novel com­prises scat­tered mo­ments in the life of an un­named mother in Tokyo

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - JOHN SELF


One way to re­al­is­ti­cally de­pict the months and years pass­ing in a novel is to pub­lish it in real time. That is what Yuko Tsushima did with this book, re­leased in monthly in­stal­ments in the Ja­panese lit­er­ary mag­a­zine Gunzo in 1978-79 and now trans­lated into English for the first time. This was hardly a new idea, though Tsushima’s slim story is as far re­moved from the sen­sa­tional Vic­to­rian triple-decker as can be. In­stead it re­flects, like a crys­tal, scat­tered mo­ments in the life of an un­named mother try­ing to make a new life in Tokyo with her daugh­ter af­ter sep­a­ra­tion.

The ter­ri­tory of light in the ti­tle is an apart­ment that the mother moves into with her two-year-old girl to be­gin their new life. It’s on the fourth floor of an old of­fice build­ing, and so filled with light that “en­ter­ing from the dim­ness of the stair­well, you prac­ti­cally had to squint”. Ini­tially she feels pleased “for hav­ing man­aged to pro­tect my daugh­ter from the up­heaval around her with the quan­tity of light”. But she can’t pro­tect her­self from the lone­li­ness of life as a sin­gle par­ent, nav­i­gat­ing work and neigh­bour dis­putes and di­vorce me­di­a­tion with­out help.

Each chap­ter de­scribes a dis­crete episode in the lives of mother and girl, of­ten ti­tled with a haiku-like aware­ness of na­ture: “Sun­day in the Trees”, “A Dream of Birds”. But there is a stark con­trast be­tween the gen­tle ti­tles and the re­al­ity of ur­ban life de­scribed. In “The Water’s Edge”, for ex­am­ple, she finds her­self dream­ing of rain, only to be dis­turbed by ten­ants down­stairs com­plain­ing about drip­ping water. Yet the hum­drum re­al­ity is sub­verted again when they go to the roof and find that the build­ing’s water tower has sprung a leak, cre­at­ing “a great ex­panse of clear water” rip­pling and sparkling like a new world. “Mommy, it’s the sea! Wow! Look how big it is!” cries her daugh­ter.


The mother finds that as a woman alone in so­ci­ety, peo­ple want not so much to help her as con­trol her. Neigh­bours ar­range to have mesh placed over her win­dows to stop her daugh­ter from throw­ing things out (“The de­ci­sion doesn’t in­volve you. All you have to do is get used to it”). Ac­quain­tances ap­proach her to coun­sel against di­vorce (“Ev­ery woman thinks it’s going to be dif­fer­ent for her, but she ends up at the bot­tom of the heap all the same”). An es­tate agent tries to per­suade her to rent an apart­ment that was the lo­ca­tion of a mur­der-sui­cide (“Gas, so it’s not as if it left traces”).

Con­trol is some­thing the woman her­self strug­gles to ex­ert. If she’s not get­ting it wrong – such as when she leaves her daugh­ter asleep in the apart­ment alone, while she goes out for the night to try to bring back “those care­free, lively times” be­fore her sep­a­ra­tion – she finds con­trol slip­ping away al­to­gether, as lurid dreams creep into her re­al­ity and she can no longer re­mem­ber who in­sti­gated her sep­a­ra­tion. In the later chap­ters of the story, she be­comes more iso­lated still, and be­gins to with­draw from the rest of the world. “No one else must know about this place that made me yearn to dis­solve un­til I be­came a par­ti­cle of light my­self.”

Tsushima’s telling of the story en­hances this feel­ing of de­tach­ment, tele­scop­ing years into a sen­tence, or prac­tis­ing odd eli­sions such as the de­pic­tion of the woman’s boss. In one chap­ter he is sus­pi­ciously over­fa­mil­iar, yet later he is re­ferred to in pass­ing as hav­ing been hos­pi­talised with cir­rho­sis of the liver and a new boss is in­stalled. That way of lop­ping off a sub­plot is un­ortho­dox in fic­tion but, of course, quite nor­mal in real life.

Tsushima said she wrote only of what she had ex­pe­ri­enced – she too was a di­vorced mother – and that she got the “hor­ri­ble idea of be­com­ing a nov­el­ist” af­ter vow­ing to give up writ­ing if she didn’t win an es­say com­pe­ti­tion in her col­lege. She came first, and by the ev­i­dence of this brac­ing, of­ten breathtaking book – with much more of her work yet to be trans­lated – we should be glad that she did.

Yuko Tsushima: wrote only of what she had ex­pe­ri­enced as a di­vorced mother her­self

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