Sucked into the soft, light-filled sky

Tsushima-san,

In Territory of Light, tr. Geraldine Harcourt (2018. Original: 光の領分, Hikari no ryōbun, 1979), you throw your protagonist in a room flooded from all corners with a harsh, shifting light: she has nowhere to hide, and it feels as if, by inflicting her with a blaze of sunshine, you have made her transparent to us, like a strange being made of pliable glass. “No one else must know about this place that made me yearn to dissolve until I became a particle of light myself.”

When the novel opens, the unnamed narrator, who works as a librarian in a radio station in Tokyo, has just separated from her husband. While looking for a new place to move in with her two-year-old daughter, our protagonist seems to have found the perfect flat: the territory of light of the title is an apartment on the fourth floor of an old office building, flooded with the sun from all directions.

The book is divided into twelve chapters, and we follow one year in the life of our narrator, told in a fragmented way, almost as if she were registering scattered events on her journal. She is trying to make a new life for herself and her daughter, and to cope with the struggle that it entails. The new flat is the first place she can truly call her own – she found it, chose it, made with it what she wanted, according to her own rules. The flat is the space our protagonist took for herself, the space where she will constantly struggle to take back the control over her life.

However, this is not a story about a woman overcoming adversity, as it is a story about a woman simply doing her best to stay afloat – and, more often than not, failing terribly at it. Our narrator has not only to readjust her life, as she transitions to single parenthood, but also to deal with people’s prejudices about her as a single mother: worse still, she seems to be surrounded by people who are more interested in judging and controlling her than in actually helping her. They don’t miss a single opportunity to show disappointment at what she is doing, and even keep approaching her to pontify against divorce: “Every woman thinks it’s going to be different for her, but she ends up at the bottom of the heap all the same”; Nothing goes right for a woman on her own.

Our narrator is surrounded by people who think they know better and who want to tell her how to live her life. To make matters worse, she has no friends to turn to, and her husband – who had started the whole process of separation in the first place (and now lives with another woman) – refuses to vanish from her life and keeps insisting that she should come back to him (despite the fact that he is not interested in having custody of the child and is unwilling to help them financially).

There is no idealization in your depiction of single motherhood: our narrator is constantly oversleeping and getting late to the radio station; sometimes, she is so tired, that she neglects the most basic household chores; she frequently loses patience with her toddler, to the point of neglecting her; she slips away in the middle of the night to a bar and gets drunk; she has disappointing one-night stands; she drinks ever increasing doses of alcohol to be able to sleep through the night; she even fantasizes about smothering her crying daughter once, and is later overcome by guilt.

Our protagonist is overwhelmed by the tension between her need to take over the reins of her life and the number of things that are simply out of her control. Even her body seems to be refusing to be ordered around, and her sense of reality sometimes appears to be decreasing, gradually giving way to strange dreams and desperate longings.  Maybe she is letting herself go, falling into a daydream, so as to escape the demands of single motherhood and the prejudices surrounding it.

Our narrator is ambivalent about her husband, and seems to dislike him most for his incessant need to control her; she is also ambivalent about her daughter, and constantly shifts between indifference, anger, and love. Our narrator longs to have her old life back, but is uncertain about what this old life actually means: is it the time when she was married? The time before getting married? The time before marriage went bitter? Is it a longing for what it could have been? Or a longing for radical change? You give us no easy answer here.

This is very much a book about loneliness: the characters are never truly communicating with each other; mother and daughter appear to inhabit parallel worlds that barely touch one another; and our narrator sometimes even seems to be deeply alienated from herself, and from the reality around her.

In sharp contrast to her new flat – this territory of light -, our protagonist appears to be constantly enveloped in darkness: she has no clear idea of what she wants besides being able to sleep, drink, and forget, and she is frequently stumbling over her own ambivalent feelings, seeking illumination, but never finding any real clarity. It is not so much that she learns something along the way, as it is that she simply goes through a thick layer of seemingly never-ending darkness – which, come to think of it, may be only the counter-effect of being temporarily drowned in sharp, all-consuming, blinding light.

Yours truly,

J.


Glow II, by Helen Frankenthaler, 1968

“When I finally reached my apartment after lowering the entrance shutter and climbing up the stairs, I hunkered down, covered my face, and cried. Not a single clear emotion came with the tears.”  – ‘Territory of Light’, by Yuko Tsushima

“From below my first reaction had been a sigh at the sight of the formidable stairs, but the moment he opened the place up and I took one step inside, I crowed to myself that this was the apartment for me. The red floor blazed in the setting sun. The long-closed, empty rooms pulsed with light.”  – ‘Territory of Light’, by Yuko Tsushima

“I had never noticed that there were such tall trees in front of the gate. Returning my gaze to the tops of the three elms, I wondered why I’d noticed them on that particular day. Their presence before my eyes now was the odd thing, odder than not having seen them before. Their crowns were themselves tall. Slender and straight, they gave me an uneasy sense that I was about to be lifted off the ground and sucked into the soft, light-filled sky. (…) Alone, I was suddenly conscious of the eyes of passers-by and hastily glanced back up into the elm branches. I felt vertigo. I wasn’t sure what I’d done. I was afraid of my child: that fear, which I could still feel inside me, was all I knew. Here was I, a mother trying to take her child’s father from her.” – ‘Territory of Light’, by Yuko Tsushima


About the book

  • Penguin Classics, 2018, tr. Geraldine Harcourt, 122p. Goodreads
  • Original title: 光の領分
  • The novel released in monthly instalments in the Japanese literary magazine Gunzo in 1978-79
  • My rating: 4,5 stars
  • I read this book for Japanese Literature Challenge 12

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