YŪKO TSUSHIMA, (2022) Woman Running in the Mountains, New York Review Books £14.99 trans Geraldine Harcourt, Introduction Lauren Groff.
Woman Running in the Mountains; Yuko Tsushima (New York Review Books: 2022)
This novel, first published in 1980, begins with a section called simply, Midsummer. On the first page, the central character, Takiko Odawa, is woken by labour pains. She sets off alone and on foot from her parent’s house without waking them, to the hospital, where she gives birth to a baby boy.
We learn that her pregnancy is the result of a brief affair with a married man, and is a source of shame to her parents. Her mother has repeatedly suggested that she should have an abortion or give the baby up while her abusive father reacts with violence, regularly beating his daughter. There are telling details of the deprived neighbourhood in which she lives, and Takiko’s refusal to walk with her head down. Thus far, we appear to be in the territory of social realism, or naturalism. Tsushima has a lot to say about attitudes, customs and regulations concerning women and pregnancy in late twentieth century Japan, the socially and legally enforced prejudice against single parenthood.
However interesting this is, it is not all this novel has to offer. In her introduction, Lauren Groff says that the text offers the reader ‘astonishing, glittering moments of wonder’ while never forgetting the darker details of poverty and discrimination. She suggests that ‘the ferocious truth of this book’ is that out of the daily struggle with drudgery ‘greatness arises.’ Takiko, subject to all the constraints of poverty, prejudice and violence, has a visionary sense that responds to nature, to sexuality and motherhood. At first, this takes the form of dreams and reverie, but as it develops, Takiko’s world changes. She moves from a passive acquiescence to men’s overtures to initiating sex firstly with a previous boyfriend and later with Kambayushi, a man she works with, whose own son is disabled. Her feelings for Kambayushi are strongly linked to her feelings for her son ‘to see Kambayushi’s face was to try out her feelings for Akira’. The scene where he talks about his love for his son, who will never mature as other children, is one of the most moving of the book.
Tsushima avoids the easy trajectory of romance. Takiko remains alone with her son. Yet there is a transformation of a different kind, accompanied by some exquisite descriptions of nature. While there is a suggestion of female solidarity throughout the novel, it is Takiko’s connection to the natural world that empowers her. As the narrative unfolds, the boundary between the ‘real’ world and the visionary diminishes until almost imperceptible linguistic shifts suggest that the two have merged. In her chapter in The Short Story in German in the 21st Century, Áine McMurty reflects on Yoko Tawada’s ‘reflexive re-embodiments of linguistic and geographic spaces’. This phrase can usefully be applied to Tsushima’s novel. It slips unobtrusively between the real and the surreal and a visionary sense that originates in Takiko’s body. By the end, Takiko has ‘groped blindly in the intense light of her own body’ towards a different path.
Livi Michael has published nineteen full-length works of fiction for adults, young adults and children, as well as a number of short stories in magazines including Granta. He has a PhD in Literature and leads the MA in Publishing Programme at Manchester Metropolitan University.
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