When I heard that Japanese writer Minae Mizumura had a new book appearing in English, my enthusiasm wasn’t entirely unmixed with trepidation. You see, while her epic Japanese reworking of Wuthering Heights, A True Novel, was my book of the year back in 2014, the next book to appear wasn’t quite as well received. In fact, Mizumura’s non-fiction work, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, ending up being my least popular book of 2015. Still, that means that approaching the latest book was certainly interesting as I wasn’t sure what to expect. Let’s see which of her two previous works in English it resembles most…
Inheritance from Mother (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is the story of Mitsuki, a middle-aged woman approaching a new stage of her life. The start of the novel plunges us into the middle of a phone call with her sister Natsuki, in which we learn of the death of their mother and of the money they calculate they’ll inherit. If that sounds rather callous, Mizumura soon reveals that the two daughters, particularly Mitsuki, have every reason to be relieved about their mother’s passing given the way they had to care for her, and the selfishness the old woman showed throughout her life.
However, the mother’s death doesn’t bring Mitsuki as much relief as you might expect, mainly because of another major obstacle to happiness. Her husband, Tetsuo, has had several affairs in the past, but the unexpected discovery of a more serious relationship stuns Mitsuki, leaving her unable to decide how she should spend the last decades of her life. With her mother finally gone, she takes a well-earned rest at a hotel in the Hakone area a couple of hours outside Tokyo to decide how (and whether) she wants to go on, in the process falling in with an unusual collection of guests, all of whom have their own sorrows.
Inheritance from Mother was originally published between 2010 and 2011 in the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper (sixty-six chapters divided into two parts) and pays homage to the old tradition of novel serialisation. For much of the novel, the story is certainly a page-turner, with each chapter of around seven pages pulling you on to try the next one, and luckily it has a lot more in common with A True Novel than with Mizumura’s non-fiction work. There’s a distinctly old-fashioned air to the work, in the best possible way, and the finished product from Other Press adds to this feeling, a sturdy hardback with a flowery facade.
The first half of the novel focuses on Mitsuki and her role as a carer, looking back at the start of her mother’s illness and showing how, partly owing to her sister’s own health issues, the brunt of the care is borne by Mitsuki. It’s a skillful examination of a pressing societal issue, with Mitsuki a representative of the many Japanese women trapped caring for old people (the flip side of the much-lauded longevity the Japanese ‘enjoy’…). Mitsuki must live with the guilt that comes from wishing her mother’s lengthy illness would finally run its course and the chronic exhaustion of combining paid employment with caring for both her parents in turn. Despite this, she never gives in to the temptation to wash her hands of her mother:
Mitsuki wondered about herself: was it because she was Japanese that she didn’t simply walk away and be done with her? Was she swept up in a cultural climate where a woman’s virtue had long been inextricable from her role as caregiver? Or was the prospect simply too exhausting? Did she sense that severing their connection would drain her of all her strength and that once her weeping and wailing were over, her voice a dry rasp, she would only take pity on her mother and so fail to extricate herself after all? Baffled, she continued to be her mother’s mainstay.
p.158 (Other Press, 2017)
Over the course of this first section, Mizumura also explores the ethical considerations and cost concerns involved in an elderly person’s prolongued illness. As Mitsuki goes from nursing home to hospital, we see how Japan is slightly behind the times in terms of both government assistance and the idea of dying with dignity.
We sympathise with Mitsuki mainly because her mother turns out to be a very selfish woman. A flighty woman whose appearance and comfort are paramount, she dotes on the prettier Natsuki from a young age, leaving Mitsuki to carry the bags as the three of them walk to Natsuki’s piano lesson. It’s a scene that haunts the younger daughter decades later:
Mothers were supposed to be fair.
All the unfairness she had suffered until then was encapsulated in that moment. Forever after, whenever she encountered an instance of the ongoing unfairness, this indelible scene from her childhood rose unbidden in her heart. (p.89)
This is nothing, though, compared to the mother’s treatment of Mitsuki’s father. When he falls ill, his wife simply sends him off to a nursing home and turns her back on him, leaving her daughters to spend time with him in the stark, depressing atmosphere of a place where people are sent to die.
That scene doesn’t paint marriage in a very flattering light, and the perils of Japanese relationships turn out to be another major theme of the novel. In addition to the issues with her mother, Mitsuki comes to realise that Tetsuo never really loved her, in spite of all the sacrifices she has made for him (including giving up the opportunity to translate Madame Bovary into French because Tetsuo needs her teaching salary to be able to buy a condo in the heart of Tokyo). His subsequent betrayal leaves her regretting her marriage, but unsure as to whether she’d be better or worse off without him. This is just one of the book’s many failed relationships, though, and as the writer takes us back into the family’s history, we are witness to several marriage break-ups and scandalous affairs – and see that Mitsuki’s mother’s behaviour is foreshadowed by that of her grandmother.
Mitsuki’s one escape from her pressures is literature, which plays a major role in Inheritance from Mother. Several events from the family history are based on, and partly caused by, an old Japanese novel, The Golden Demon (the apparent catalyst for Mitsuki’s grandmother’s affair). There are also frequent allusions to The Makioka Sisters and a lament at one point for the days of Natsume Sōseki, when even newspaper serialisations focused on quality literature. However, with Mitsuki’s background in French studies, it’s not just Japanese literature which looms large:
Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Today, mother died. The opening line of the first novel she had ever read in French, long ago. (p.8)
Of course, it’s Flaubert, not Camus, whose work underpins the novel. Quite apart from Mitsuki’s doomed attempt to bring Madame Bovary into Japanese, the book hints at the passions of the headstrong women of the family (which end just as badly, if not as tragically, as poor Emma’s delusions).
While this is very much Mitsuki’s tale, as in A True Novel Mizumura delights into plunging us into the past and regaling us with lengthy back stories; although we start with the mother’s death, we don’t reach that point again until the end of the first part. This structure does have its flaws. There’s a fair amount of lengthy exposition, and the story can drag at times, especially in the slightly kitsch second half (a coming together of unhappy people in a semi-deserted hotel during a rainy December). The two parts can seem a little too unconnected at times, even if the end successfully ties the major themes of caring for the elderly and marital issues together
For me, Inheritance from Mother doesn’t quite live up to Mizumura’s previous novel in English, but it’s certainly worth reading, and Winters Carpenter does her usual excellent job in bringing across the comforting, pseudo-Victorian style of Mizumura’s fiction, making this an ideal book to curl up with on a cold winter night (yes, it does get cold in Melbourne). The work successfully manages to examine the difficulty of being a middle-aged woman in Japan (trapped between care for the elderly and managing a marriage of semi-convenience) as well as harking back to the traditional Japanese serialised novel; if there are a few dull passages along the way, they’re more than made up for by the rest of the book.
To finish, a quick word on the title, with particular reference to the inheritance, as the word seems to have several interpretations. There’s the money Mitsuki’s mother leaves behind, of course, but there’s a sense of a more intangible legacy too – a culture, a way of life and a sense of responsibility. The question Mizumura’s novel poses is how Mitsuki will deal with what her mother has bequeathed her (both legally and genetically) and whether she has the strength to accept one and reject the other. The answer? Well, you’ll have to find that out for yourself – happy reading 🙂