Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind.

First published in the late 1970s as a series of interlinked short stories, Territory of Light focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. As the story opens, the unnamed woman – who narrates the novella – and her three-year-old daughter are newly established in a fourth-floor apartment with windows on all sides, thereby forming the ‘territory of light’ of the title.

Tsushima poignantly depicts the young woman’s pain in adjusting to life as a single parent, no longer sure of her own sense of self or future existence. The husband, Fujino, is in a new relationship, unable or unwilling to contribute financially to his daughter’s upbringing – a situation that leaves the narrator trying to cope with the unsettling transition taking place.

This man was my daughter’s father and my husband, but he knew nothing of the life I had been leading for over a month now – an existence that was uneventful enough in its way, and yet the tranquillity of the days ahead only fed my apprehension – and I could give him no idea of that life. I felt as though I had before me an invisible, rickety, misshapen mass that not only kept its precarious balance but was actually sending out roots and even tentative new shoots that only my eyes could see. Having been presented with this unstable object, I’m starting to grow too attached to it to be able to slip back into married life with Fujino as if nothing had happened. The way he spoke to me, as my husband, didn’t feel right anymore. (pp. 22-23)

There are times when the narrator oscillates between openly trying to prevent her husband from spending time with his daughter and secretly wishing they could all get back together – to coexist as a typical family unit, whatever form that may take.

I longed to have my old life back. But there was no going back now, nor any way out. I couldn’t decide whether I’d done this to myself or fallen for a ruse of unknown origin. What I’d failed to see so far, it turned out, it was my own cruelty. (p. 59)

In the meantime, she must juggle the needs of a lively three-year-old alongside her job as an archivist in an audio library, relying on the support of a day-care centre for childcare during the week. As the demands of single parenthood increase, there is a sense of this woman receding into the darkness, giving rise to feelings of guilt, fear, annoyance and fatigue. Her nights are haunted by anxiety-fuelled dreams and fragments of memories, frequently punctuated by the toddler’s persistent cries – something the narrator tries to block out through an increasing reliance on alcohol.

Interestingly, Tsushima doesn’t shy away from illustrating the fragile nature of the young woman’s state of mind, characterised by her increasing consumption of drink, a tendency to oversleep on weekdays, a lack of care for the apartment, and – most worryingly of all – her neglect of the child’s wellbeing. Even though it is clear that the narrator loves her child very much, the practicalities of the situation remain stark and unadorned.

As one might expect from the title, imagery plays a significant role in the novella, contributing significantly to the mood and atmosphere of the piece. Tsushima’s prose has a fluid, poetic quality, particularly when depicting the play of light within the building itself.

No one else must know about this place that made me yearn to dissolve until I became a particle of light myself. The way that light cohered in one place was unearthly. I gazed at its stillness without ever going in through the gate. (p. 119)

The narrative is punctuated with beguiling images, each one possible to visualise in the mind – perhaps best illustrated by the mosaic of bright colours ‘like a burst of bright flowers’ that suddenly appears on the roof next door.

The unexpected sight of bright colours on that weathered tiled roof set my heart racing with sudden foreboding. I leaned out of the window and took a closer look. They were coloured paper squares. Red ones. Blue ones. Green, yellow…I could only conclude that every sheet in the pack of origami paper I had bought my daughter a few days earlier had floated down, one after the other, taking its time and enjoying the breeze, on to the tiled floor roof below. I pictured a small hand pluck one square at a time from the pack, reach out the window, and release it in midair. My daughter, who had just turned three, would have been laughing out loud with pleasure as she watched the different colours wafting down. (p. 47)

Territory of Light is a quiet, contemplative novella – strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting, the apartment being located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Tsushima’s focus on the day-to-day minutiae of life is a powerful one, forcing us to contemplate how we would cope in similar circumstances, how our own failings and vulnerabilities might be exposed.

Moreover, the spectre of death runs through the narrative – from the young boy who falls to his death accidentally while playing, to a suicide on the railways, to the funerals glimpsed in the street, the concept of our ephemerality is keenly felt. Tsushima’s own father – the Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai – took his own life when she was just one year old, a point that adds another layer of emotional intensity to story reflected here. Nevertheless, there are moments of brightness too – the simple pleasures that motherhood can bring in spite of the myriad of challenges.

By the end of the book, there are tentative signs of some kind of acclimatisation on the part of the mother, the glimpse of a new beginning on the horizon. Nevertheless, the delicate balance between darkness and light remains, a point that serves to remind us of our own fallibilities in life.

This is my second piece for #WITMonth (women in translation) which runs throughout August. Several other bloggers have written about this book. Here are links to relevant posts by Grant and Dorian.

Territory of Light is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

24 thoughts on “Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt)

  1. 1streading

    Thanks for linking to my review. This was one of my favourite books of last year – I loved the way it was both very ordinary but also had an other-worldly quality. I’m sure you would enjoy Child of Fortune as well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! Yes, that’s it exactly. While the narrative is rooted in the day-to-day existence, there’s something very dreamlike or other-worldly about it, almost as if the apartment is detached from reality in some way. Good to hear that you think I’ll enjoy Child of Fortune, too. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I picked up a copy almost as soon as I’d finished this one!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, lovely! I think you’ll like it, Eric. It’s quiet and contemplative but very haunting too. The sort of book that flits in and out of the mind every now and again, just when you’re least expecting it. I’ll be very interested to see your take on it.

      Reply
  2. Radz Pandit

    So pleased that you loved this Jacqui! I read Territory of Light last year and it was one of my favourites. I found it unsettling but also poignant especially in terms of how it addresses the challenges a woman has to deal with when it comes to being a single parent.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s a feeling of sadness running through it, a sense that the challenges of life as a single parent is wearing the protagonist down. I was struck by the lack of any kind of support mechanism for this young woman, the absence of any real help from friends or family members to lighten the load. It must be so hard to try and cope in that situation when you don’t have anyone to open up to…

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Great review. The book sounds very good It sounds somewhat dark. I guess the darkness contrasts with the light of the title and the room. I need to delve into Japanese literature. Though bleak sounding, this seems like a worthy read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the contrast works very well here as the light helps to accentuate the darker elements, particularly the young woman’s inner thoughts and feelings. The role of imagery is very important too — colours, light, spaces and objects, they all play their role.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    I love the sound of this so much. It sounds very poignant. I have had trouble stopping myself buying it straight away. I might not hold out for long.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I know I shouldn’t say it, but I think you’d like this very much. It is very poignant but beautifully written – the sort of book that lingers in the mind, growing in stature as the days go by.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review, Jacqui and a wonderful choice of quotes. I thought this might be one for me and I’m even more convinced. How fascinating that her father was Osamu Dazai (whom I’ve read), and as you say it’s impossible to know how much his death affected her. Like Ali says, I may not hold out for long…!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, how interesting to hear that you’ve read Dazai! I’m a little bit ashamed to admit that I’d never heard of him until I started reading up on Territory of Light. There’s definitely something here that taps into his history – the sense of how fragile our lives can be irrespective of age or situation.

      Reply
  6. realthog

    This book sounds absolutely yummy, Jacqui — many thanks for your glowing account of it. I guess I’d better trog off to the library catalogue yet again . . .

    Mr. Slow-on-the-Uptake here has just realized he’s inadvertently been making contributions to WIT month . . . although so far mainly in July!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Ahead of the game as ever, John. ;)

      As for the Tsushima, it’s a quiet, contemplative book, the type of narrative that gets under your skin, if you know what I mean. Well worth seeking out if you’re in the mood for something dreamlike and unsettling.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it is. I’d seen lots of positive reviews before I read it, often a tricky thing as that sets a certain level of expectation. Luckily in this case the buzz was fully justified – it’s an excellent book, strangely thought-provoking in an enigmatic way.

      Reply
  7. Annabel (AnnaBookBel)

    One of my favourites from last year too and a lovely review. I particularly liked the way she made the ordinariness of everyday life not ordinary – if you get what I mean. I’d love to read more by her – I know Harcourt has translated some.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Annabel. I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed it too. Yes, there’s something other-wordly about it which stops the everyday activities from seeming mundane. I’d like to read more by her too, especially Child of Fortune as it seems to be in a similar vein.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous! I think you’d like this a lot. It’s a difficult book to capture in a review, partly because so much its power stems from the mood Tsushima creates when telling the story.

      Reply

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