An interesting but imperfect work of Japanese feminism

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Territory of Light

Book Title: Territory of Light
ISBN: 9780241312629
Author: Yuko Tsushima
Publisher : Penguin Classics (GB)
Publication Year: 2019
Price: RM55

This lovely, melancholy novel painstakingly documents a year in one young woman’s life.

A woman and her husband are looking for an apartment. It’s not for them to share; her husband is leaving her but wants to find her a new place because, he says, “I won’t be able to sleep at night knowing you’re in some dump.” The young woman, who narrates Tsushima’s (The Shooting Gallery, 1997) slim novel, eventually finds an apartment filled with light for herself and her young daughter.

It is vital to note that nowhere in this slim volume of 183 pages is the name of the female narrator nor her daughter ever mentioned. All we know is that her husband’s surname is precisely the same as the office building her apartment rests in — Fujino.

That might sound like a good sign, but the reality is more complicated. The novel’s 12 chapters — originally published serially — document the narrator’s struggle to build a new life. It’s not a one-way journey. This is mid-1970s Tokyo, and divorce isn’t exactly common: The narrator finds herself isolated from her old friends and determined not to ask her mother for help. She makes mistakes — drinks to excess, loses patience with her daughter, oversleeps, oversleeps again.

The subject matter is partially based on Tsushima’s own childhood: Her father, celebrated writer Osamu Dazai, committed suicide a year after she was born. She has returned to the subject in several of her books, always with great sympathy and a nuanced respect for her characters.

Tsushima’s prose is achingly elegant, well worth lingering over. But there’s also a quiet simplicity, even banality, to her style and what she allows us to see of her narrator’s life: domestic rituals like waking up, washing, shopping for groceries, cooking, and all the rest. Grace hovers above the banal and the transcendent alike.

‘Territory of Light’ is broken up into 12 chapters, each for a month of the year that the novel takes place. It feels like a series of interconnected short stories that congeal to make up a novel — which is kind of its failure as a piece of art. The stories are fragmented, and filled with the day-to-day mundanities as looking after a daughter who is prone to throwing tantrums, drinking and enjoying social times with friends, and putting up with the landlord and the people who work in her building who think that her apartment is the source of leaks and whatnot.

As the novel’s title, ‘Territory of Light’, suggests, it has a fair share of subtleties about the qualities of light and the interpretation of dreams which were rather lost. However the realistic details of the story are precise, unique, and effective, and the reader gets a good sense of what life is like for this separated woman and her daughter in Tokyo.

Apparently Yuko Tsushima wrote this novel day-to-day while she herself was going through a very similar separation and divorce. She said she wrote only of what she herself experienced.

This novel was originally published in twelve parts between 1978 and 1979 in the monthly, Japanese literary magazine Gunzo, thereby allowing readers to fully experience the year-long odyssey alongside the mother and daughter pair.

‘Territory of Light’ is in the running for the Best Translated Book Award of 2020. It is an honest vivid account of a separation without sentimentality or self-pity.

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