Forty years ago, Yuko Tsushima’s “Territory of Light” was published in the author’s native Japan. It went on to win many prizes and to be hailed as a standout work in a long and prolific career. It wasn’t translated into English until now, and elegantly so by Geraldine Harcourt.
Short and spare yet also luminous and profound, the novel follows a young woman and her daughter through the course of a year. Each of the 12 chapters represents one month (the book was originally released in monthly installments in a Japanese literary magazine) and charts the woman’s highs and lows and her increasingly tenuous grip on reality.
The title refers to the bright fourth-floor Tokyo apartment the woman calls home for 12 months. After separating from her husband, she and her 2-year-old daughter (the only characters in the book never named) move in and settle down. She adjusts to life without Fujino — “a man of many moods” — by losing herself in her library work and spending time with her daughter.
But soon she starts to feel the strain. Domestic toil wears her down. Bad dreams and sleepless nights contribute to her daily fatigue. Neighbors complain about a leak, Fujino won’t consent to a divorce, and her daughter’s sporadic tantrums develop into routine “frenzies of rage.”
“Why,” she asks herself, “were children the only ones who ever got to melt down?” As the woman’s behavior becomes more erratic and irresponsible, she is forced to take stock of where she is going and what she stands to lose.
This is a novel suffused with light. Some of it, such as the sunlight that streams through the apartment windows, is calming and energizing. Other sources prove blinding and disorienting for the woman and the reader. When the woman alerts us to “the hot light I’d felt behind my back that day” we wonder whether she is just feeling the heat or in the early stages of that meltdown.
Tsushima offsets all light with shade, pockets of which give necessary tension during descriptions of a walk through the park or a trip to the fair, or accounts of mundane tedium and drudgery. The woman jolts us by casually mentioning two people who died in a house fire, a young boy who plunged 10 floors, and a person who jumped in front of her evening train. “I couldn’t shake the feeling that deaths lay in wait for me at every turn,” she declares at one point in a narrative filled with sharp turns and sudden drops.
Tsushima, who died in 2016, is a writer worth discovering. Deceptively simple and remarkably timely, her story of a marginalized woman trying to cope with the trials of life is certain to entrance a whole new readership and pave the way for further translations of her strangely mesmerizing work.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Territory of Light
By: Yuko Tsushima, translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 181 pages, $24