During my look at female Japanese writers for this year’s Women in Translation Month, I was lucky enough to read a couple of exellent books by Yuko Tsushima. Territory of Light was a short novel recounting a year in the life of a single mother while Of Dogs and Walls was a mini offering from Penguin Modern Classics with a couple of great stories. However, another of Tsushima’s works was rereleased in English recently, and luckily I found some time to try this one, too. There are obvious similarities with the other works, but with a harder, nastier edge. As you’ll see, it features a woman whom it’s not always easy to sympathise with…
Child of Fortune (review copy courtesy of the translator, Geraldine Harcourt) is the story of Kōko, a thirty-six-year-old woman scraping a living as a part-time piano teacher. Her daughter Kayako, about to enter junior high school, spends most of her time at her aunt Shōko’s house, only returning to spend the night with her mother each Saturday. As Kōko split up with Hatanaka, Kayako’s father, many years ago, this leaves her free to drift through life with the occasional encounter with one of her boyfriends.
She may enjoy this casual bohemian existence, but those around her aren’t quite as happy. Shōko is repeatedly nagging her to return to the family home, where there’s enough room for both mother and daughter, and Kayako has also had more than enough of her mother’s lack of drive. However, it’s only when Kōko starts to suspect that she may be pregnant that she begins to doubt her current way of life. Will she really be able to go on in her carefree way with another child to support?
Like Territory of Light, Child of Fortune is a fascinating examination of the life of a single mother in 1970s Japan. Both novels show the difficulties of balancing work and motherhood, with the deadbeat absent dads of little help, even when they do make an appearance. There’s more than a hint of the writer’s own experiences here, and just as in her story ‘The Watery Realm’, Tsushima’s character has grown up without a father. You may not know that the writer’s own father was the acclaimed author Osamu Dazai, and a quick look at his Wikipedia page shows that there’s no exaggeration in her descriptions of his demise.
Unlike in the previous novel, though, the main character here doesn’t exactly make a great impression. Kōko is lazy and indolent, neglecting her apartment, her appearance, her job and especially her daughter. As she drifts through her life with little direction, everything seems to be too much trouble, and she’s happiest just staying at home and idling around.
That’s her own business of course, but the effect it has on Kayako is rather disturbing. She tries her best to get by without her mother, effectively (but not legally) becoming part of her aunt’s family. It’s only when she wants to get into a private junior high school that she asks her mother for assistance, yet even here Kōko ends up dragging her daughter down, resenting having to make the effort:
Her thoughts turned to the interview that lay ahead of them both; intensely uncomfortable, she shifted again and again in her chair. She hadn’t entirely lost hope of dissuading Kayako even now. Slowly, too, her temper was rising. Why on earth had she taken time off from work to come here? Now she would have to take next Sunday morning’s lessons to pay back the teacher who was filling in for her. However did Kayako expect to repay these sacrifices?
p.33 (Penguin Modern Classics, 2018)
At which point I was tempted to sling the book across the room in frustration at Kōko’s total inability to realise how selfish she is…
Perhaps the best advertisement for the book is the fact that the reader does gradually start to feel some sympathy for the hapless Kōko. Initially, we are on the sister’s side, treating Kōko as an unruly child, but eventually we start to feel smothered by the pressure, too, what with Shōko’s constant nagging and the unexpected visits from the men in her life. The writer seems to be asking the question whether, in a collectivist society, a single woman has the right to be independent. In short, is Kōko free to mess up her life if she so wishes?
Child of Fortune is another fairly short novel, but throughly absorbing, with more excellent work by Harcourt (who translated the other Tsushima works mentioned above – and was kind enough to offer me a copy of this one!). Like Kōko herself, the story drifts along without ever losing its way, switching back and forth between the current events and her memories of the past, and the events that have brought her to this point. While she appears fairly free and unattached, in truth, like most people, she’s at the centre of a complex web of relationships and responsibilities, and the crux of the story is her attempt to be rid of them.
This becomes even more of an issue when the men, who are largely absent from the action, start to become involved. We may think that Kōko is selfish, but that’s nothing compared to how they act. There’s Hatanaka, a flirt with an inability to settle down with Kōko and their daughter; Doi, who managed long-term relationships with both Kōko and his wife; and then there’s Osada, who somehow slips into a role as Kōko’s lover, almost inheriting it from the other men. All of them are able to do as they please, with little regard for responsibility or consequences, and the novel culminates in a showdown of the sexes, with Kōko forced to defend herself against one last attack on her independence.
It’s not always pleasant to read, but overall Child of Fortune is a well crafted look at relationships outside a ‘normal’ family. While the idea of a complete family is the culmination of human existence for some of the characters, Kōko isn’t so sure, and a conversation in one of the many dream sequences hints at this:
No matter how many kids you have, parents are still on their own. Everyone knows that. All you’re doing, in the end, is clinging to them as something easier to handle, and trying to forget how ugly it can get – isn’t that so? How do you manage without a man? Did having a baby like this do you any good at all? Well? (p.95)
Despite all the well-meaning advice from outsiders, Kōko knows that she is the only one who can decide how she lives her life. If only everyone would let her…