I recently read two books about motherhood and parenting — not by design, that’s just how it turned out — one of which is Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt, and originally published in 1978. The second one I will write about at a later date. Motherhood is a subject I will happily return to again and again. There’s something comforting in reading about people struggling to take care of little ones, something endlessly interesting about the boredom of childrearing. I like reading about people who have gone through or are going through the same complicated, difficult things I am. I know some people avoid this, which makes a lot of sense! But I find it soothing.
Mothering is not all that Territory of Light is about: it’s the first-person story of a woman whose husband has recently left her, and she’s now on her own trying to create a new life. As a single parent, she finds a new apartment — the light-filled, spacious place referenced by the title — tries to keep her bosses happy when she misses work, tries to keep the daycare people happy when her daughter acts out, and tries to figure out how she feels about the impending divorce and the possibility of new habits and friendships.
She has been rendered powerless but also handed greater responsibility than ever before. She’s in a place of both possibility and confusion. Her husband moves to a new apartment and she doesn’t know where it is, so she can’t contact him easily. She also can’t keep him from stopping by her new place and demanding to see her daughter. She can move on from her marriage, but she’s not entirely sure she wants to; she can find her own apartment but then she has to deal with water leaks and demanding neighbors on her own. She can have new relationships and friendships but those have their own complications too. Her apartment, on the 4th floor with huge windows at the top of her building, is a refuge as she tries to survive, although even that is at risk as her daughter throws things out the window onto the neighbor’s roof with bad consequences.
The novel is a portrait of in-betweenness and contingency. It’s also a story of trying to manage a two-year-old who increasingly has a mind of her own. The daughter is shaken up by the changes in her life and begins waking up in the middle of the night crying, leaving the mother exhausted and worried. The narrator is haunted by fears of her daughter’s death but can do nothing about it except endure. There’s also not a lot she can do about her daughter’s habit of throwing things out the window, her increasing anger, and her meltdowns in public places. She does leave her asleep in the apartment alone while she goes out to the bar, a habit that I don’t think is meant to seem unusual or neglectful, but that felt shocking to me every time she did it. This IS a novel from the 1970s, though, and maybe people just did that back then?
Particularly moving to me was the narrator’s confusion about what to do when her daughter has a birthday. She realizes that she should have a party, but because of the divorce, she’s not sure who her friends are. The list of people she feels comfortable inviting to a celebration is short — she doesn’t actually feel comfortable calling anyone — but she gives it a try the evening before the birthday. Of course, two people are busy and one doesn’t answer the phone. The two people she talked to laugh at her for not understanding that she should invite her daughter’s friends, not her own. She just gives up. Her daughter is only turning three and is too young to remember a party or lack of party — and who are you supposed to invite to very little kids’ birthday parties anyway? — but it’s another failure in a long string of them.
The novel is made up of twelve named chapters that are little vignettes: finding her apartment, taking a trip to the park, her long, exhausting Sundays. These chapters give the book an episodic feel, which suits the story: the narrator’s life is just one thing after another while she’s in her current holding pattern. The book does eventually gain a sense of movement and it has a satisfying ending, but change is muted and slow. It’s a portrait of a year that is mostly about survival.
The book is gorgeously written: light as an image moves through every chapter, sometimes signaling possibility, sometimes menace. Loss of light, when it comes, is devastating, but there’s also comfort to be found in darkness. This is how the novel opens:
The apartment had windows on all sides.
I spent a year there, with my little daughter, on the top floor of an old four-storey office building. We had the whole fourth floor to ourselves, plus the rooftop terrace. At street level there was a camera store; the second and third floors were both divided into two rented offices … I used to slip in [to the third floor rooms] some nights after my daughter had finally gone to sleep. I would open the windows a fraction and enjoy a different take on the view, or walk back and forth in the empty space. I felt as if I were in a secret chamber, unknown to anyone.
This passage captures the narrator’s voice: it is direct, matter-of-fact, and open, but with depths of feeling lurking underneath. It’s a short novel, arguably a novella, that feels longer and deeper than it is.
I hadn’t thought of this book as fitting in the Japanese “I-novel” tradition until a Twitter friend pointed it out, but of course it does. After reading Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel and this one, both books I loved, I’m eager to read more.
Publishing this Week
New books from small presses out this week (unlike most weeks, I’ve read two of these books already):
Everything Like Before by Kjell Askildsen, translated by Seán Kinsella (Archipelago): I reviewed this book for Foreword Reviews. It’s a collection of realist stories about unhappy people — I liked it.
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf): a new Jhumpa Lahiri novel! Okay, I haven’t read much of Lahiri’s fiction, but I did like her recent nonfiction books very much (In Other Words and The Clothing of Books). Lahiri wrote this in Italian and translated it into English herself.
Negative Space by Lilly Dancyger (Sante Fe Writer’s Project): I’ve read this one too and liked it very much. It’s a memoir about Dancyger’s experiences growing up with an artist father and parents who were addicted to heroin. She tells her story, her parents’ stories, and thinks through her relationship with her father’s art. The book includes photos of his work.
New on the TBR
I did not acquire any new books this week! Unless you count La Bâtarde by Violette Leduc, translated by Derek Coltman (Dalkey Archive Press, originally published in 1964). I’m not counting this because Rick bought it, although I do currently have it in my study at the moment. The publisher copy reads: “An obsessive and revealing self-portrait of a remarkable woman humiliated by the circumstances of her birth and by her physical appearance, La Bâtarde relates Violette Leduc's long search for her own identity through a series of agonizing and passionate love affairs with both men and women.”
Added to my wishlist (books that have caught my eye but I don’t yet own):
From the New World: Poems, 1976-2014 by Jorie Graham (Ecco, 2016): I loved Jorie Graham’s conversation with David Naimon on the Between the Covers podcast, and want to read some of her poetry. I prefer to read single volumes of poetry rather than big collections, but I wasn’t sure what to pick. If anyone has suggestions of the best Graham book to read, let me know.
Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change by Anjali Enjeti (University of Georgia Press, 2021): essays on Enjeti’s move from Detroit to Chattanooga at age 10 and her experiences living in the south, among other subjects.
This Little Art by Kate Briggs (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017): a book about translation. The publisher describes it as an essay, although it’s 300+ pages, but the term essay describes it well anyway: it’s wide-ranging, capacious, beautiful, and smart. I’m loving it.
The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, by Dawnie Walton (37 Ink, 2021): my current audiobook. It’s a novel written as oral history about an interracial rock duo in the 1970s.
Book of Hours: Poems by Kevin Young (Knopf, 2015): my current poetry book.
The Cormac Report
Rick and I are generally very quiet people: we don’t talk a lot or play loud music or talk on the phone or throw loud parties. Cormac, on the other hand, is noisy. He’s noisy in a way I don’t think I was as a kid, so I’m blaming this on Rick. Cormac LOVES to talk and make noise and wrestle with the dogs and run around and slam doors. Mostly, he loves to talk. He’s so good at it! He does it all day long. I love it, of course, proud mother that I am, but it’s tiring for two quiet introverts.
Cormac’s regular noise-making means that when he DOES get quiet, I begin to wonder what’s up. It’s a little eerie. I almost always know where he is in the house, but sometimes everything is still and peaceful, and I get a little worried. What is he up to? And, sometimes, I’ll look around for him, and he’ll be sitting in the armchair in his bedroom reading a book. It’s so cute! He loves reading, but he reads mostly at mealtimes and after he’s gone to bed. He rarely just plops down in a chair and picks up a book in the middle of the day. When he does and everything falls quiet, it’s magical.
Have a good week everyone!