Territory of Light deftly balances exterior plot and interior musings. Its protagonist, a nameless newly single mother in 1970’s Tokyo, rents an apartment. She struggles to be prompt to her library job and is short-tempered with her young daughter. In other words, she’s a relatable nameless woman.
Yoko Tsushima uses the subtlest of language to convey the woman’s tears and triumphs. The nameless woman so casually (or perhaps so dissociatedly?) lists her failures and fears. She knows smacking her child for having a nightmare isn’t the best thing to do. But she isn’t afraid to describe it to us. Territory of Light is classified as an”I-novel,” a fictionalized sort of journal. In this style honesty and rawness are valued and Tsushima delivers.
But Tsushima is not solely interested in the personal. She writes of the protagonist’s struggle as a single mother in an unforgiving society. 1970’s Japan provided no social supports for single mothers. Divorce was frowned upon and child support was rarely awarded. Yuko doesn’t shy away from describing these difficulties. The nameless woman is pressured to go back to her husband by everyone in her life, from her friends to her day care providers. Territory of Light chronicles a year of her quiet refusal and struggle to figure out who the hell she is.
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Territory of Light
The book opens in the spring, when the nameless woman first lets the top floor of an office building. The apartment is covered in windows and flooded with light. While her two-year-old daughter finds the effect beautiful, the woman feels lacerated by the constantly streaming sun. The light soon becomes a character in itself; all three flatmates living uneasily together for a time.
It was the husbands’ idea to split up. He soon changes his mind, the nameless woman doesn’t. Even though the going is hard at first. The first few months, laid low in a deep depression, she struggles to wake most morning. Her hungry and urine soaked daughter cries and cries. These difficulties are given mere lines; brief, but so impacting. It’s as if the Tsushima wishes not to bother the reader too much with the initial suffering in Territory of Light.
It is beautiful to watch the nameless woman claw her way out of the crevasse. To take control of her days and her thoughts; fiercely loving her little human and taking no more shit. While the plot of Territory of Light can plod, the eventual resurrection is worth the wait.
Not Just an “I-novel”
Territory of Light was initially published in twelve installments (one for each month of the year) featured in the Japanese literary monthly Gunzo. At the time, Tsushima bristled against the autobiographical assumptions made about her work. Even though it was classified as an “I-novel” and Yuko was herself a single mother, and the daughter of a single mother (her father was the famous novelist Osamu Dazai, who died by suicide by drowning with his girlfriend).
The behavior of the nameless woman, especially her sexcapades and anger towards her toddler, could be shocking to 1970’s Japan. But Yuko wanted readers to understand that it was the lack of societal support that bred the nameless woman’s internal strife. When she began to have positive interactions, with a school nurse and some divorce mediators, things begin to turn around. Societal empathy can lessen the trauma of difficult situations.
Haruki Murakami (one of my favorite writers) hated “I-novels” and sought to make his work as unlike them as possible. I guess that’s why his novels are so trippy, he rejected the truth heavy “I-novels” for talking monkeys and astral pregnancies.
Territory of Light is an important book by an author I want to read more of. I enjoyed it and I think you will too.
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Check out my last book review here!