I expected this novella to land as lightly as the cover treatment – like diffuse and gentle morning light. It hit me more like a bright midday sun beam.
It’s a rare book that conveys the frustration, boredom, and drudgery of early motherhood without veering into gross-out humour or sentimentality. I don’t relate to any of the particulars of this story – I became a mother in another millennium, on another continent, and by the time my oldest was turning three, I already had another baby – but the parent-toddler struggles, at the park, at a festival, at daycare drop off, during middle of the night wake ups, are instantly recognizable.
It’s also a rare fictional mother that is so exposed. Alternately loving and neglectful, she observes herself without judgement, in the detached mode that you have to develop when your kids are young, if you want to preserve any semblance of a self. When she does feel guilty, it’s for things she can’t help, like her “libidinous” dreams.
It’s also strangely elusive. Did the mother leave the father, or the other way around? And why? What sort of items was the child throwing off the rooftop of their new apartment, large enough to damage the neighbour’s roof, small enough to go undetected? Minor characters (men, mostly) come and go without much introduction or explanation.
Strangest of all, I kept feeling déjà vu (déjà lu?), like I’d read this story before. Eventually I made the connection to a story from Korean writer Bora Chung’s collection Cursed Bunny, called “Home Sweet Home”, also about a mother and daughter experiencing strange things in an apartment building. The building was structured just like one in this book, from the fourth-floor living space to the empty third floor and second floor offices. There were similar troubles with money, marriage, and irate neighbours. It eventually goes in a different, more supernatural direction, but I feel convinced that Chung must have read Tsushima, and I found one scrap of evidence – Chung’s translator was working with Tsushima’s translator recently… how mysterious!
#NovNov hosts Cathy and Rebecca wrote beautiful reviews that get at the spirit of the story and the mastery of the writing and translation. Cathy writes about the universal nature of the mother’s struggle, and Rebecca about the “clear, precise” and “diamond-like” writing style. If you need more convincing, John Self offers five more reasons to enter the Territory of Light, and captures some of the other reasons I loved this book, from the realism of a life full of “frustratingly aimless coincidences” to the selfish reasons we want our children to be happy (e.g. so they’ll sleep at night and leave us to ourselves).
Sadly, both author and translator passed away in the last couple of years. Harcourt translated a number of Tsushima’s books, and they seem to dwell on similar themes of abandonment and young motherhood. I don’t think I’ll wait until next year’s #NovNov… Japan in January is just around the corner (host Tony has, of course, reviewed this book!)