Book Review: Territory of Light (Yuko Tsushima)

The meaning of light is far from clear in Yuko Tsushima’s slim though year-long telling of the unfolding of a young mother. The narrowness of a book’s spine can sometimes belie its depths (this offering certainly aims towards the literary entanglements of being and becoming), but every author ought also to bear in mind the potential of a reader’s state of mind: that is to say, a few faults of character written into a narrative may be excused but a continuance risks alienating the reader for the duration. Tsushima’s unnamed lead character is, for the most part, selfish and unsympathetic. Her situation is made difficult by being suddenly left by her husband of just a few years; she is obliged to rent somewhere to live and chooses a fourth floor flat in a narrow office block for her and her almost three year old daughter; her husband is without regret or concern. One might well expect to encounter such a character who, under these circumstances, may struggle to adapt; however, save for a few fleeting moments of kindness displayed, the young mother is, to an alienated reader, regarded without any great sympathy.

Originally published in 1978/9, in twelve monthly instalments in Gunzō, the Japanese literary magazine, Tsushima’s Territory of Light (Penguin Classics, 2017; translated from the original Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt) is a read whose possible weight is clouded by its disagreeable characters. Both lead character and her daughter are unnamed, though the child’s father is referred to as Fujino throughout. Names add dimensions. That the author can engender an emotion in a reader is commendable; however, that emotion being a steadily developing vexation is perhaps lamentable. The young mother is initially meek, but then also self-centred, unable to fully appreciate her daughter, frustrated at her husband but also, in parts, wanting to be back together with him, and then at other times drunkard, slovenly and irresponsible. She wants to just stand and look at the trees in the park, to her daughter’s irritation, and when the latter runs off, the former is in no great pains to go running after her. The child is not yet three years old. The author has the mother wandering, sitting in the park, ruminating on matters not appropriate when faced with a missing young daughter. She finds her, by chance, and nothing sits easily in the reading in this whole episode.

Early on in the piece, Tsushima explains that the new flat that the young mother has rented is bathed in light. It is a prime reason for taking the rental (though the author does not satisfactorily play with this motif, as one might expect, given the title of the book). The flat is also four storeys up, but the mother leaves all the windows open in the summer and the child drops things out of them when the mother goes off to sleep. She seems none too concerned that the child might fall from the open windows. That is to say, there is a vague notion that this might happen, and then there are unsettling dreams, and a horrible accident elsewhere in the city, but even these are not enough to cause any great depth of reality to spread through this irresponsible character. She goes to a bar when the child is asleep, alone in the flat, and she drinks herself into a stupor with a female stranger. The lead character becomes more and more unlikeable. When she finally shows a little semblance of kindness towards others, it is already too late to bring her back to the realms of sympathy (she and her daughter, for example, encounter a drunk on the street and, carefully and gingerly, awkwardly they rub his back to try to soothe him).

Her husband does not appear a great deal, but when he does he is, by turns, misogynistic, also irresponsible (with regard to his financial obligations), and preferring to devote his attentions more to his vague creative projects than to his family. We can have no sympathy for him either. The young mother proceeds to practically cut her own mother out of her life, and she unsuccessfully tries to illicit more attention from a former student of her husband’s, now twenty three, but he — Sugiyama — wants nothing more of this. There is a slow spiralling of the lead character’s ways of being, downwards, as she tries to retain whatever it is of herself that she needs to retain, to look after her daughter but also to keep the child’s father away from her (though this is no noble aim), and to hold on to her job at the library archives. Tsushima succeeds in a slow unspinning, but she forgets to instil enough compassion into her young mother character. The only person who lifts from the page in any bright way is the child. She is rendered as real in her wonder and in her tantrums, in her urgency and in the affect on her that her parents’ actions have caused.

As with perhaps all translated works, it is difficult to ascertain where criticism should lie with regards to selections of words and syntax: the author or the translator? Spelling choices, however, are more of an editorial consideration when, as with this publication, no clear distinction between British and American English has been made. That is to say, spellings specific to both versions of the language are mixed here throughout. Where constructive criticism might be conferred upon the translator, matters of word choice and syntax are apposite fare. Harcourt has, for the most part, delivered a text that flows but occasionally it jolts and jars: ‘She nodded laughingly’; ‘I was afraid, and would have liked to bolt’. The coarseness of the words here only compound the reader’s agitation at the characters.

Where there is light there must be beauty. This is the case in fleeting moments in Tsushima’s writing (for example, the description of reflected red light in the child’s tears up on the roof terrace, from what at first could be fireworks but are actually from the explosions of a chemical factory; the subtle delicacy of almost love for a stranger who lets the lead character sleep on his shoulder on a train and who then, without a word, alights at his stop; the equally gentle weight of the young mother as a child herself, in dream, as she presses herself to the back of her unseen and long deceased father). These moments of light and beauty, however, are few and far between. In the final reckoning, eventually, and after the unspinning and attempted spinning back together of her main character, Tsushima abruptly has her up-sticks and leave the flat that is the territory of her transitional year from married woman to almost divorcee. The young mother finds a new flat for her and her daughter: one that is almost devoid of light altogether. The story ends without colour, fanfare or fireworks.

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