‘A room empty but for faint dancing light.’ A review of Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt

There have been many times in my life when I have been grateful for Japanese fiction. Although I have recently discovered the eccentric joys of Haruki Murakami, what I’m thinking of right now is a particular form of Japanese writing: the slender novellas translated into English that often fly under the radar but can have an impact on the reader quite out of proportion to their size. Of course I shouldn’t generalise, but many of them have that haunting, opaque, slightly removed quality that I have gradually come to associate with Japanese fiction. I picked up Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light by accident, passing it in the bookshop at a moment when I was feeling stressed and destabilised by the world at large, and something about its brevity and Japanese-ness made me reach out and buy it. Having felt as though I was in a reading – never mind general – slump, this little book helped to bring me back.

All this is not to say that Territory of Light is a comforting read. It isn’t. The narrator, a young mother who has recently separated from her husband and moved into a new apartment with her two-year-old daughter, is at times self-absorbed and unlikeable to the point of discomfort. The novel is by nature inward-looking, being about her mental state and emotional experience as she navigates both a new life and the social stigmas attached to divorce and single parenthood (‘nothing goes right for a woman on her own’), but there were scenes in which the sympathy I felt for her gave way to rage and I wanted to shout at her for being drunk in charge of her daughter, yelling at the little girl for crying in her sleep or, worse, ignoring her altogether. Very often the narrator behaves like a child herself, while her daughter is usually the far more sensible, adult seeming of the two.

Although this novella is a psychological one, it is also very definitely about our narrator’s place in the world around her. Unmoored by divorce, she struggles to find her way back into a semblance of ordinary life. The new apartment she rents has a magical quality to it, with a shining silver roof and sunlight streaming through the windows. Light is hugely important in the novel, bathing moments of euphoria in crystalline brightness and underpinning the hope which imbues her new start. It doesn’t take long, however, before things grow murkier – netting is fixed to the windows and those moments of joy are increasingly cut with despair.

As well as the narrator and her daughter, the recently divorced husband plays a major role. Though his appearances in the novel are usually brief, his presence manifests itself continuously: the building our narrator lives in happens to have his name, Fujino, and she is as much haunted by his failures to appear (for a mediation session, for example) as she is by his occasional and unexpected arrivals. He is also a constant threat in the form of her daughter; she resents their potential relationship and actively tries to keep him away from the child, who eventually begins to speak ‘about her father as if describing someone her mother wouldn’t know’. Other people hover on the periphery – only a few (mainly men) ever enter the apartment, while the rest make it no further than the door or are left to encounters in the outside world – but they all take on two-dimensional, almost phantom properties, like figures encountered in a dream.

This dreamlike quality saturates the entire book and is one of the main features that drew me to it. In extraordinarily controlled prose that feels polite and reserved, always keeping the reader slightly at bay, Tsushima manages to convey an outpouring of emotional turmoil, a sense of personal dissatisfaction, an unsettling vacillation between hope and despair. Reading it, I felt that there was always something hidden just beyond the surface, behind the words; I was constantly yearning for something without knowing what it was. Far from being frustrating, though, this sense of all-pervasive, unnameable loss just made me want to keep reading.

Territory of Light was originally published as a series of monthly stories and, even though I read it as a novel, I feel it does work as a story collection, with each chapter effectively contained on its own. Tsushima’s opening sentences are short, sharp and sure, creating a formidable sense of setting in a mere handful of words. ‘The apartment had windows on all sides.’ ‘My daughter cries and cries.’ These sentences are a good example of her sparing way with words, which on the surface make the novel crisp and simple – and, for me, a pleasure to read.

Whether you read it in one sitting or dip in and out, there’s a lot to love in this little novella. Tsushima took me to the streets of Japan, cast me down into a well of womanly despair, and lifted me up to a small rooftop apartment flooded with shafts of dazzling light. In short, she took me out of myself, and I remembered wherein the power of good fiction lies.

My rating: 4.5/5

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