I recently read two novellas from a new-to-me author, both of which I picked up on a whim from my local library. Both books, Territory of Light and Child of Fortune, were written originally in Japanese by Yūko Tsushima, and translated into English by Geraldine Harcourt. Both translations are exquisitely rendered; the prose has a wonderful flow to it in both cases.
Territory of Light ****
Territory of Light, which was first published in a serialised form in a magazine between 1978 and 1979, has been variously described as ‘spiky, atmospheric and intimate’ (Spectator), and ‘disturbing and dream-like’ (Financial Times). The novella, which begins in springtime, takes as its focus a young woman, who has been abandoned by her husband, and who has to start a new life in a Tokyo apartment with her young daughter. Territory of Light charts the protagonist’s life over the course of a calendar year, as she struggles to bring up her two-year-old alone.
From the first, I very much admired what Tsushima had set out to express. The new apartment of her unnamed narrator is ‘filled with light, streaming through the windows, so bright you have to squint’, but regardless, she ‘finds herself plummeting deeper into darkness; becoming unstable, untethered.’ This instability of self threads through the novella, and we learn quite quickly just how much the narrator has to deal with.
She is scared by her newfound independence, but is also set on carving a life away from her husband. She comments: ‘I didn’t want him ever to set foot in my new life. I was afraid of any renewed contact, so afraid it left me surprised at myself. The frightening thing was how accustomed I had become to his being there.’ The narrator is also scared of the effects single parenthood has on her as time goes on. She says: ‘I wish I could forget I even had a child. I’d been coping on my own now for less than six months, though maybe that was just long enough to have grown used to the new life, which could be why the insidious tiredness was starting to knock the wind out of me.’ She turns to sleep to try and cope alone, leaving her small daughter to fend for herself.
At just 122 pages, so much human feeling fills the pages of Territory of Light. Its protagonist is at a point of crisis in her life, and her situation and responses are wholly believable. The structure of the novella, which is essentially made up of twelve loosely connected stories, works wonderfully. Whilst there is not a great deal of plot to drive the book along, in consequence it perhaps becomes more realistic. The narrator is concerned with the minutiae of her everyday, as well as the bigger picture. She muddles through the most ordinary things, all of which are beset with problems, and speaks openly to the reader about her many anxieties. I so enjoyed the writing style and narrative voice of Territory of Light, and it feels like a great place to start reading Tsushima’s work from.
Child of Fortune ****
Child of Fortune was first published in Japan in 1978, and appeared in a revised version of Geraldine Harcourt’s English translation in 2018. As with Territory of Light, this novella focuses upon a female protagonist named Kōko, a young woman who has been ‘defying her family’s wishes’ for some time. She has, against what was viewed as acceptable in Tokyo society at the time, brought up her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayako, alone in her apartment. After embarking on a ‘casual affair’, she finds herself pregnant once more, and is forced to juggle her present and future selves.
The book’s blurb says that Child of Fortune combines ‘the beauty and unease of a dream’, and presents ‘an unflinching portrayal of a woman’s innermost fears and desires’. Angela Carter described it as ‘a terrific novel’, and the Japan Times declares that it is ‘as relevant today as when it was published… at once powerfully uplifting and achingly sad.’
At the outset of the story, Kayako has moved in with Kōko’s sister and her family. The young girl ‘now returned to her mother’s apartment only on Saturday nights. She kept strictly to this schedule, arriving on Saturday evening and leaving early Sunday morning.’ This concerns Kōko to an extent, and she clearly misses seeing her daughter every day, but her attention is soon filled with the idea of a new child in her life, one who will be fully dependent upon her. On Kōko’s behalf, the narrator reflects: ‘Maybe, she was reaching an age when it was senseless to want a fatherless child; but, precisely because of her age she didn’t want to make a choice that she would regret till the day she died. Lately she was more convinced than ever that there was no point in worrying about what people thought. She would soon be thirty-seven. The only person watching Kōko at thirty-seven was Kōko.’
Kōko’s present is interspersed throughout with her childhood memories, and her vivid, strange dreams. I must admit that in comparison to Tsushima’s first person narrated novella Territory of Light, I did not find the third person perspective overly effective. The story too, whilst readable, was nowhere near as absorbing. However, I still had so much interest in its protagonist, and felt invested in her and her story. Child of Fortune is more detached, but upon reflection, this makes the two novellas – which I read within days of each other – feel different, despite similarities in protagonist and plot.
Although well written and translated, the conversational patterns in Child of Fortune did not always flow naturally. The novella, however, deals with some interesting and important themes around womanhood, motherhood, and societal perceptions, and held my interest from start to finish. I will be seeking out Tsushima’s back catalogue of work as soon as I possibly can.