Territory of Light
Trans. Geraldine Harcourt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019
This crisp, straight-forward but dense novella reads with ease but resonates with subtle depth. Originally published as a year long serial with each chapter coming out every month, Territory of Light is told from the point of view of a newly separated woman in 1970s Japan attempting to craft a wholly new life for herself aside from her marriage as she raises her toddler daughter. However, the narrative isn’t quite linear or confined to a single year’s time. Rather, Tsushima uses the form to allow her to dive and emerge from the her character’s emotional state both past and present to accentuate her anxiety, restlessness, and satisfaction.
It would be too easy to simply take this slim book as the tale of lonely woman rebuilding or finding herself (although, yes, that is happening). Rather, Territory of Light is an achingly sincere story refusing melodrama in favor of deep longing for connection as conventions are confronted, embraced, endured, and altered. Through an economy of prose, Tsushima inserts readers as a sort of silent partner with her protagonist. So we don’t just see her experiences but feel them–the warm awe of as sunlight fills her new apartment sitting at the top of building and with windows on all sides, the elation and tantrums of her three year old daughter, and the coldness of adult life. This last trait in particularly haunts much of the story as finding new adult friends, companions, outside of those from her marriage who she can no longer embrace is a profound difficulty. It is heartrending and too real to read her staggering home after botching a night out “When I finally reached my apartment after lowering the entrance shutter and climbing up the stairs, I hunkered down, covered my face, and cried. Not a single clear emotion came with the tears.”
In the cold light of day, she struggles to meld (and identify) desires that are truly her own with her lived experience, that is, the banalities of everyday life. Central to this is the mother/daughter story told with an honesty many parents will find brutally realist. In that interaction, Tsushima is also able to paint others as they circle the pair (specifically the woman protagonist) always looking to insert themselves in form of judgment and control. In the process, we can plainly see how her former self was small, stunted and how now she is growing. The brilliance of Tsushima’s work is that this growth isn’t towards some predetermined end, some grand freedom or reward. Instead, she writes a novella embracing the fact of finally be able to be for oneself and with oneself.
About the Author
Yuko Tsushima was born in Tokyo in 1947, the daughter of the novelist Osamu Dazai, who took his own life when she was one year old. Her prolific literary career began with her first collection of short stories, Shaniku-sai (Carnival), which she published at the age of twenty-four. She won many awards, including the Izumi Kyoka Prize for Literature (1977), the Kawabata Prize (1983), and the Tanizaki Prize (1998). She died in 2016.
Geraldine Harcourt was awarded the 1990 Wheatland Translation Prize. She is currently working on two books of Yuko Tsushima’s fiction. She lives in New Zealand.