Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

I’ve written before about Yuko Tsushima, the Japanese writer whose dreamlike novella, Territory of Light, was one of my highlights from last year. In her work, Tsushima frequently explores the lives of women on the fringes, individuals who defy societal expectations of marriage and motherhood – themes which are prominent again here.

First published in Japan in 1978, Child of Fortune revolves around Kōko, a thirty-six-year-old divorced woman, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayako. As the novel opens, Kōko is living alone in her apartment, Kayako having recently moved in with her Aunt Shōko, Kōko’s sensible older sister. Ostensibly, Kayako cited a need to focus on her schoolwork as the reason for the change in living arrangements; nevertheless, one can’t help but wonder if the real reason was somewhat more complex than this…

For much of her adult life, Kōko has been defying her relatives’ wishes by raising Kayako on her own, away from the traditional family unit. The more conventional Shōko clearly considers her sister’s approach to motherhood to be ill-judged and reckless. Kōko’s job giving piano lessons to children is hardly steady, offering little in the way of financial stability for the future. In short, there is nothing that Shōko would like more than to meddle with her sister’s lifestyle – after all, it is Shōko who will need to step in if things go wrong.

–That’s not what I call a real job– Kōko’s older sister had said to Kayako. –It’s only part-time. What makes her think she can support herself and a daughter on her pay? If anything goes wrong she’ll turn to us in the end. Which means in fact that she’s relying on us all along. Of course she has to, she couldn’t expect to make ends meet otherwise, so she should stop being so stubborn and simply come and live here. We’d be delighted to have her. She is my only sister, after all. Really, for someone who’s thirty-seven she has less sense than you, Kaya dear.– (p. 3)

As Kayako is drawn further into the fold of Shōko’s family, Kōko is left feeling marginalised and isolated – somewhat alienated from her own daughter. 

Kayako now returned to her mother’s apartment only on Saturday nights. She kept strictly to this schedule, arriving on Saturday evening and leaving early Sunday morning. She would set off to take a practice test, or to meet a friend, or for some such reason. Each time, Kōko felt she was being tormented for her own weakness – it was always the same, always a turned back that she was forced to look at. She wanted to keep her daughter with her on Sunday morning at least. But to tell her so might be taking as nagging, and then Kayako mightn’t come near her at all. (p. 4)

The picture is further complicated when Kōko realises that she might be pregnant, the consequence of a fairly casual approach to a liaison with Osada, a friend of her former husband. While Kōko seems to have invited this situation, there is one thing she begins to ponder…

Only one thing gave her pause, a slight concern – after all – about what people would think. And even that small hesitation seemed unlikely to survive her highhanded view of life, for, living as she chose until now, she’d come to care little about appearances at this stage. Maybe she was reaching an age where it was senseless to want a fatherless child; but, precisely because of her age, she didn’t want to make a choice that she would regret till the day she died. Lately she was more convinced than ever that there was no point worrying about what people thought. She would soon be thirty-seven. The only person watching Kōko at thirty-seven was Kōko. (p. 40)

I’m keeping this post quite brief, mainly because the book itself is quite compact and best experienced in person rather than secondhand through a review. As the narrative unravels, we come to realise just how conflicted and vulnerable Kōko really is. Memories from the past begin to resurface: a childhood marked by the loss of her congenitally disabled brother at the age of twelve; the breakdown of her marriage to Kayako’s father; the disappointment of a lover returning to his pregnant wife. These things and more begin to flit through Kōko’s mind.

Child of Fortune is another haunting, beautifully-written book from Tsushima, one that explores themes of marginalisation, motherhood and the pressure to conform to conventional societal expectations. (The setting of 1970s Japan is highly significant here.) It is by turns subtle, reflective and deeply melancholic. And yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end, a sense of Kōko finally seizing control, once again ready to forge her own path in life.

(This is my first read for August’s focus on Women in Translation, a.k.a. #WITMonth – if it’s of interest, you can find more details about it here.)

Child of Fortune is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

25 thoughts on “Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

  1. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Sounds wonderful, that quiet struggle of a woman to make her own choices, rejecting societal and familial expectations, I’m going to seek this one out, thanks Jacqui. Wonderful review and a touching choice of quotes.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. You’d like it, I think. Tsuhima’s novellas remind me a little of some of Yoko Ogawa’s work – maybe something like The Memory Police with its reflective, melancholic tone.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re absolutely right about the sadness. It seems to be an inherent part of the Japanese culture from this period, possibly as a hangover from the Second World War. I found this such a poignant read, the sort of book that really gets under your skin.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    This sounds very good.

    People raising children and living their lives in defiance of family and social expectations has been the source of stories originating from many cultures and times.

    I want to read more Japanese literature. Tsushima seems like a writer worth reading.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s a well-trodden theme, but there’s a bit of a twist here that makes the protagonist’s story all the more powerful. I would definitely recommend Tsushima if you’re thinking of reading more Japanese lit from this period – Territory of Light is my favourite, but Child of Fortune is well worth considering too.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s very compelling in a quiet, understated way. Even though it’s been a few weeks since I read it, I still find myself thinking about Kōko virtually every day…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think Tsushima gives a voice to certain kind of female experience, very much tapping into the feelings of marginalisation I’ve discussed here You’d like this author, Ali. Her other novella, Territory of Light, was one of my favourites from last year.

      Reply
  3. 1streading

    Some similarities with Territory of Light, but I loved this too. The use of the sisters to provide contrast worked really well, with the child as the battleground. Still hoping more of her work gets translated.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, great way of viewing it. I found this to be more of a grower (less immediate, perhaps?) than Territory, but no less impactful in the end. Maybe that’s a function of the third-person narrative here vs the first-person in Territory? And yes, I agree – it would be great to see more of work in translation in the future!

      Reply
  4. Radz Pandit

    Like you I thought Territory of Light was amazing and on the strength of it, I bought a copy of Child of Fortune. It’s good to know that you really liked it, I hope to read it soon.

    Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds lovely, Jacqui, and especially good to have a female perspective on Japanese society and expectations at the time. In the 1970s here there were still those expectations, despite the strides forward in the feminist movements of the time, and I imagine that in some places the norms were still quite restrictive. I can’t say I’d want to be absorbed into my controlling family circle though – I’m with Koko on wanting to stay independent!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think the Japanese culture in the 1970s was almost certainly more restrictive than our own in Britain. Not that the latter was ideal, but at least things were starting to get a little easier for single mothers and other women looking to strike out on their own. They make an interesting pairing, these two books – there’s an underlying sense of sadness running through them which adds to the cumulative effect.

      Reply
  6. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Territory of Light is my favourite of the two, but this is still very much worth reading. They work well together, I think, almost synergistic as the effect feels somewhat cumulative.

      Reply

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