Home Book Reviews Of Dogs and Walls review: two absorbing short stories by Yuko Tsushima

Of Dogs and Walls review: two absorbing short stories by Yuko Tsushima

by J. C. Greenway
Of Dogs and Walls review cover
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Whether you are a long-term fan of Yuko Tsushima or have yet to discover her, this Of Dogs and Walls review is for you. The book, one of the Penguin Modern series, is small, but it contains many themes you will recognise if you have read her longer books, such as Child of Fortune. If you haven’t yet, it will provide a great introduction to this creator of dreamy, transgressive women. And it will only cost around £3 (unless you spring for the box set – just to put temptation in your path!) so is the perfect start-of-the-year read.

Novellas and short stories are popular in Japan, perhaps because readers want something to slip into a pocket on the commute, whereas conventional wisdom elsewhere is that they don’t sell well. Tsushima wrote many short stories during her career, and the two that appear in this volume, ‘The Watery Realm’ and ‘Of Dogs and Walls’ first appeared in literary magazines.

‘The Watery Realm’

In the first story, the narrator’s son’s desire for a new toy for his aquarium sets her off musing about water, and its relation to life and death, with autobiographical details that readers may recognise from the author’s upbringing and from other stories. These take in the depths of sadness and tragedy along with more everyday moments. This passage reminded me of falling off to sleep in an old machiya house in Kyoto as the rain played music on our (thankfully unleaky) roof:

The roof of that old house leaked badly when it rained. We positioned basins, pans, rice pots, and bowls on the tatami, till it took some ingenuity to lay out the futons when we wanted to go to bed. The children were delighted, of course. Different plinks echoed through the room, some low-pitched, some high. The biggest drips spattered water around the containers, while others slowly formed droplets that fell at steady intervals.

The children turn everything into a game. They’ll switch receptacles and listen to the different sounds, or take a basin away then whisk it back at the last moment. Just when I think I’ll never get them settled, there’ll be a hush and I’ll find them fast asleep, looking cosier there among the drips than on a rainless night.

The story considers the gulf between a mother’s view of her children’s lives and their own experiences of it, where the stories and myths we tell ourselves collide with reality, often painfully so. It is both the wail of a child against her mother and also the wisdom of an adult who is now a mother herself reconsidering her mother’s life and it balances those impulses skilfully.

‘Of Dogs and Walls’

In the title story, we are again back in childhood with an array of pets (content note: some don’t live long, full lives so be aware). The family moves to a new neighbourhood where the houses are enclosed by high walls, unlike those where they had previously been living. Using Toru-chan, her developmentally disabled older brother, as an excuse, the narrator of the story begins exploring behind those walls. Trespassing, sure, but often excused by the neighbours on account of her brother.

One door opened on to row upon row of many-hued roses, all in bloom. She recalled the rose garden extending out of sight in every direction, but it couldn’t have, it had probably just seemed so vast to a child’s eyes. Behind another door, they set a yard full of chickens squawking. The owner came running at the rooster’s raucous cock-a-doodle-do. There were still people who kept chickens in the middle of Tokyo in those days. Once they almost walked slap into a man washing a blue car.

As the narrator looks back, the walls between the houses in the neighbourhood intrude into the relationships between the neighbours. This culminates in a wall being built at Toru-chan’s school to fence off the special class from the other pupils. Saying much more would be to spoil the power of the story, but again, Yuko Tsushima asks readers to examine attitudes to those considered as ‘outsiders’ and question why they exist.

They are both beautiful stories, self-contained and thought-provoking and – to refer back to Claire Keegan – exactly as long as they need to be. Translated by Geraldine Harcourt, as was Child of Fortune, Of Dogs and Walls would be the perfect read for your commute (if you’re still doing them!) or any other spare hour you can find.

The Japanese Literature Challenge 17

I wrote this Of Dogs and Walls review for the 17th Japanese Literature Challenge, hosted by Meredith at the Dolce Bellezza blog.

Japanese Literature Challenge 17 Of Dogs and Walls review

Head over to the review site to see what other people have been reading and if you have started the year with any Yuko Tsushima or other Japanese authors, let me know in the comments below.

If you have enjoyed this Of Dogs and Walls review and are in the UK, you can buy a copy from an independent bookshop near you via this affiliate link. This site may earn a small commission if you do.

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Marina Sofia 8 February 2024 - 6:44 pm

I couldn’t help but bring in all the biographical details of the author (and her father) as I was reading these two stories – her father Dazai Osamu even has a story about how much he hates dogs yet adopts one – and it really, really pierced my heart. So much emotion distilled and condensed into such a small package!

J. C. Greenway 9 February 2024 - 5:18 pm

Yes, so true. How it starts off with the aquarium and gets to the deep water from there in the first story, for instance.

And I’ve had one other person nudge me to read one of his stories today – it must be a sign! I’ll need to take a look at your reviews and decide which one to choose.


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