Read #141

(trans: Geraldine Harcourt)

One of those quiet treasures, both in the fact that it has only recently received much publicity among English readers despite being written in 1980, thanks to an NYRB Classics reprint, but also in the way that the book is softly spoken: it never raises its voice.

It relates the life of a young woman, Takiko, who we see at the opening of the novel on foot and heavily pregnant, walking through the early morning heat of a stifling summer, to give birth. Her pregnancy followed a brief affair with a married man, who is no longer in the picture. She had to leave her low-level clerical job on falling pregnant and is forced to live with her parents, in the ramshackle family home: parents who disapprove of Takiko’s life and choice. Her father is an alcoholic and frequently violent to Takiko, leaving her battered and bloody.

Slowly, through the nursing and post-natal appointments and the other parents she meets through the baby’s creche, Takiko’s life-circle grows wider and she begins to explore beyond her neighbourhood, on foot. She takes on menial jobs, drinks lonely coffees at strange hours in cafes, and walks. Finally landing a job that she has coveted for a while, at a local garden centre / supplier of plants to offices, she settles into a happier life She insists on going on the overnight work-trip to the nursery they use, which is in the mountain foothills. She goes with an older, married co-worker, Kambayashi, and here she finds some kind of rough-at-the-edges Arcadia.

Tsushima uses the novel to talk about the quiet violences done to women, the put-downs, the social expectations, lack of opportunities – in essence, she studies and exposes the second-class-citizen nature of the life of many Japanese women. It also combines a realism, in the down to earth descriptions of daily life, interspersed with strange dream-like pauses in which Takiko drifts through contemplations of colour and light. Yuko Tsushima was evidently a writer of some standing with more than 30 novels, some short story collections, and several literary prizes to her name when she died in 2016 aged 68.

In the way of many quietly beautiful, but serious works of art, the themes and images seem to slowly resurface in your consciousness days and weeks after reading.

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