This week’s Buddy Read for Novellas in November is Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, expertly translated by Geraldine Harcourt.
Territory of Light was first published between 1978 and 1979 as a series of 12 separate stories in a Japanese literary magazine Gunzō, before being published as a novel.
Territory of Light focuses on an unnamed young mother and her three year-old daughter who have recently moved into an apartment at the top of an office block following a split from the girl’s father. The apartment is a light-filled space, featuring many windows and the mother hopes the space will be a sanctuary for them both at this time of upheaval.
The novel depicts the first year of their live together in this new space as the mother navigates work, childcare and loneliness with little support from her husband or wider circle of friends and acquaintances. The book is short and concentrated, focusing all the attention on the insular world of this mother and daughter, but it does so in a way that elicits an understanding not just for this mother, but for all single mothers in the same situation.
The woman’s husband, Fujino, has moved on quickly, with a new girlfriend and little inclination to provide for his wife and daughter. The mother is torn between a need to keep him away from his daughter while they adjust to this new life, and wishing that they could get back together and be a family again. She is expected to reunite with her husband, even though he has left her for another woman, pays no money to her, and skips the mediation sessions designed to save their marriage. Instead, the narrator is criticised for her choices, in a way that her husband is not and the stigma of being a single mother (particularly in 1970s Japan) weighs heavily on her.
She suffers from nightmares and ongoing anxiety and finds it difficult to cope. She stops cleaning the apartment, turns to alcohol to numb her pain, sleeps all day and consistently takes her daughter late to childcare. Yet, what Tsushima does beautifully in Territory of Light is to depict this woman in all her complexity, without simply presenting her as a victim.
Alongside her struggles are instances of undeniable affection between mother and daughter and they share an ability to find beauty in the smallest and most unlikely of things. They are each spirited and unconventional, quick to anger but quicker to forgive and comfort. At times she imagines her daughter’s death, only to be instantly filled with love for her again.
My wild-eyed hope for the daughter I’d seen dead seemed to have come true with startling ease, but even if I’d dreamed it, I was so grateful for her return that I had to embrace her living body, amazed that the blessing of my daughter being alive had been granted to the likes of me.
In a poignant scene, the narrator creates a series of ‘magic words’ to calm her daughters night terrors and in another heartfelt moment, a flood on the roof of their building becomes an opportunity for pure joy.
These everyday details add up to an intricate portrait of a complicated life and in a world where mothers (and women) were seen as either good or bad, Tsushima depicts something deeply relevant.
The book is also beautifully written with a poetic and lyrical atmosphere. There exists a sense of otherworldliness in these pages, a luminosity that plays with ideas of light and dark throughout. By moving to this apartment, the narrator believes that she has managed to protect her daughter “from the upheaval around her with the quantity of light,” as though light itself is imbued with transcendental goodness.
No one else must know about this place that made me yearn to dissolve until I became a particle of light myself. The way that light cohered in one place was unearthly. I gazed at its stillness without ever going in through the gate.
Yet, the narrator feels stalked by thoughts of death, remembering a young boy who fell from a building not unlike her own and a lonely woman who committed suicide – however, as she perseveres, the illumination she seeks comes from within, and the reader is left with a sense that this woman will find her place in the world even as it resists her very existence.
I felt as though I had before me an invisible, rickety, misshapen mass that not only kept its precarious balance but was actually sending out roots and even tentative new shoots that only my eyes could see.
Territory of Light is a quietly powerful novella, as unsettling as it is moving. Its depiction of one mother, struggling to deal with what life has thrown at her, becomes a universal tale of struggle, persistence and redemption.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!