Territory of Light was on many best of the year lists in 2019 – and is on my to be read list – but I felt drawn towards Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima and translated by Geraldine Harcourt, which won the Japanese Women’s Literature Prize in 1978.
The main character in Child of Fortune, Koko, is not really doing what anyone wants her to. Having raised her daughter alone following a divorce, she has conflicting feelings on discovering she is pregnant by her latest boyfriend. Her daughter, Kayako, is at the age where everything even the most conventional parent does is embarrassing and is also taking the entrance examinations for an elite private girls’ Catholic junior high school attended by her cousin. Koko’s job as a piano teacher in one of the music schools that uses a system to get kids playing is easy but unfulfilling, dismissed by her older sister Shoko as, ‘…not what I call a real job,’ as she wonders how Koko can support two people on her part-time wages. Shoko cannot understand why Koko moved out of the family home to her own apartment, and encourages Kayako to spend most of the week with her, only visiting her mother at weekends. This is ostensibly so that Kayako can study in peace, but her aunt also offers to adopt the girl so that Koko is free to indulge herself completely.
Freedom. There was nothing to prevent her doing whatever she pleased, because she had nothing. Nothing. She used to think that simply being Kayako’s mother gave her life a solid social value; but had it really counted for anything? Here she was, the same mother, with this great distended belly and the wild idea of actually having the baby, and yet no sentence of death had been passed on her. No stones fell from heaven… with no proper job, no husband, nothing, she could do what she liked and it wouldn’t matter. Freedom. A fine state.
In some ways, Koko is the ultimate ‘unruly woman‘ in a country where the social price paid for stepping out of line is endless, brutal shaming – if it is difficult to be a single mother in Japan now, imagine what it was like in the 70s – housework gets neglected, she drinks, dresses shabbily and as her body expands, it seems everyone is allowed an opinion on it, from her family to her coworkers. Meanwhile Koko looks back on her marriage to flirt and deadbeat Hatanaka and a relationship that followed with Doi, a married man, even as she sleeps with Osada, a friend of her ex-husband’s who has been passing messages between the estranged couple. Koko cannot settle to anything at all, looking back on events and people with a fondness that she recollects she did not feel at the time, such as wanting to go away with Doi but being annoyed by him in the hotel, despite an awareness that she should be grateful for him sharing the cost of the trip.
She is her own worst enemy at times and there are times when her insensitivity to Kayako will make the reader want to give her a good smack, such as when she expresses her doubts about talking to the ‘rich little ladies’ who will be at the entrance interview or when she nearly lights up a cigarette outside the waiting room at the posh school. Koko’s sheer cluelessness almost defies belief. Kayako’s tears over the results make her mother want to wince and when she does start school, Koko misses the entrance ceremony because she’s asleep in bed.
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?
The baby becomes the idea of a replacement in Koko’s affections as things become more strained between mother and daughter. She dreams about Kayako leaving or of herself running away with the baby, while acknowledging that she would rather it was Doi’s than Osada’s. When she is eventually forced to tell Osada about the pregnancy and that she wants to raise the child alone, he wisecracks about a ‘virgin birth.’ She goes further back into her memories, to a time when her disabled brother came to live with the rest of the family after some time in an institution. The forest around his home is a scary memory, the wet earth the source of another bad dream. Seeing schoolkids waiting to go on an excursion reminds her that there was a time in her life when she wasn’t running around after men.
One of the things I liked best about Child of Fortune was that it has so much to say about how women can be expected to move through the world, seeking to please, keeping their bodies small and performing motherhood appropriately. It is hard to believe it was written 40 years ago! Koko refuses to play ball, without ever actually making a definitive stand. She’s a messy bitch (literally), who would rather sit with a beer or watch the light through her apartment windows than do the cleaning.
How impartial the light was! It streamed into the tiniest crevices between roofs, missing none. It might go unnoticed by people passing in the street, but it was there. It caught each light on the roadside shrubs. There was no shadow without good reason, without some object in the way. Light simply obeyed the physical laws that generated it, dispassionately. Surely nothing else fell to us with such perfect equality? She drew a deep breath at the thought. And yet how strangely it had turned out: there was light; then living things, engendered by light, evolved into the human species; and there at the end of the line… call it petty emotion, or the mind; whatever it was, it was impenetrable to light.
In some ways Koko is infantile, creating drama where none needs to be, but that her choices are limited is clear from the way her ex-husband and her occasional lover can sit over a beer and make decisions for her they are confident she will abide by. Koko is a difficult character to love, but in a society where a woman living completely for herself is the ultimate rebel, free of the expected obligations to parents, husband, child or siblings, as well as coworkers, other parents in the school, or any community or volunteer groups, her determination to above all remain ‘true to her childhood self’ is almost a quiet revolution.
This review of Child of Fortune is part of the 13th Japanese Literature Challenge, hosted by Dolce Bellezza, which runs until March 2020. I have also read and reviewed The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories and the Challenge website features many more great reviews, so be sure to take a look!
Has Child of Fortune or Yuko Tsushima made it onto your to-be-read list? Are you reading any other books originally published in Japanese this year? Let me know in the comments below.