Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima

Translated by Geraldine Harcourt

Reviewed by Annabel

This latest addition to Penguin Classic’s expanding list of new translations in an upmarket paperback format is a beguiling novella following the story of a young mother and her young daughter after she has separated from her husband. It was originally published during the late 1970s in installments in a Japanese literary magazine, mirroring the passage of the year in the text.

The first chapter, named for the book’s title, concerns itself with how the mother, who is never named, finds a new home after the split with her husband. At first he comes with her to the estate agents, ostensibly to help her get a better deal, but the apartments are too expensive.

She starts looking on her own at cheaper places – there’s one ridiculously cheap, due to a previous tenant’s suicide there – she doesn’t take it. She eventually finds the building where she’ll spend the next year in the fourth floor flat with windows on all sides.

From below my first reaction had been a sigh at the sight of the formidable stairs, but the moment he opened the place up and I took one step inside, I crowed to myself that this was the apartment for me. The red floor blazed in the setting sun. The long-closed, empty rooms pulsed with light.

She soon discovers that being a single mother of a toddler is not only hard work, but as a separated woman on the track to divorce, her status isn’t approved of. Her husband can’t afford to give her money, so she works long hours at the radio library with her daughter in daycare. Being recently separated, she’s in that early stage of limbo where you suddenly realise you now must do everything yourself but don’t know how, and she’s emotionally drained. The loneliness and darkness of her new life contrast totally with their light-filled apartment. She also struggles with her daughter’s tantrums and crying at night.

Why were children the only ones who ever got to melt down?

Everyone else in the world wants to tell her what to do, but she must learn how to take control of her own life again, so she can do the best for herself and her daughter. Parenting doesn’t always come naturally to her; we wince when she gets it wrong and breathe a sigh of relief when she gets it right. It will take time before she achieves some sort of equilibrium, the passing of the year exemplified by the cherry blossom in the park, one of the havens from the otherwise urban environment.

Tsushima herself was a divorced mother, and you can sense she’s writing from experience. In the young mother’s narration there is a translucency to the prose that takes you deep into her mind through her detachment from life. Read in one sitting, the repetitiveness of the daily grind comes through strongly, something you wouldn’t feel so much read in the original installments. There may be a dullness to this life in that respect, but it’s not boring to read. There are enough events taking place in each chapter to distract the reader from becoming too maudlin, from interactions with her neighbours and colleagues to a nearby factory going up with a bang – life goes on.

This was the first work I’ve read by Tsushima – exploring her back catalogue shows a long association with translator Geraldine Harcourt, with some titles published in the UK by the Women’s Press back in the late 1980s. Penguin will publish another novella, Child of Fortune, in their modern classics brand this August, and also included some of her short stories in their recent ‘Moderns’ collection. Tsushima, who died in 2016, was a prolific author, so I hope that we’ll see more of her work available in translation in years to come.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Yuko Tsushima, Territory of LIght, 1978-9, translated by Geraldine Harcourt, 2017.  (Penguin Classics, 2018), 978-0241312193 128pp., flapped paperback.

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