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Why Japanese classic Territory of Light is a hidden masterpiece

We didn’t know what we were missing in the 40 years it took for Yūko Tsushima’s short novel Territory of Light to be translated into English (by Geraldine Harcourt). For John Self, it has quickly become one of his favourite novels in recent years and is certain to endure. Here, he lists a few reasons why.

And also, there is a quality to the story which is, if not exactly Kafkaesque, at least Kafka-ish. The narrator is subject to the unwanted interference of others, as neighbours install netting on her windows and strangers gaslight her by blaming her for the separation which was initiated by her husband. In a world not designed for women in her situation, of course she can’t win.

2. It’s not like other novels

Territory of Light is structurally ambiguous. It was published as twelve stories, one per month in the Japanese literary monthly Gunzo in 1978-9, and each story is now a chapter of the novel. But they interact in unusual ways. Because each chapter originally had to make sense on its own, there are gaps and overlaps between the chapters that are not bugs but features - they add to the sense of dislocation that the reader shares with the narrator as she tries to navigate life as a single mother. The effect is like reading the story through a prismatic lens, where multiple repeating elements shift and slide to form a blurry but persuasive image.

And yet despite the unusual structure and form, Territory of Light is more realistic than many ‘normal’ novels. Just like real life, frustratingly aimless coincidences occur, as when the building she moves into turns out to be owned by a woman with the same name as her husband. Just like real life, people come and go without explanation: the narrator’s over-familiar boss, Kobayashi, is a major figure in early chapters but suddenly stops being mentioned, and we learn only later that he died of cirrhosis. Life in the book passes not smoothly but in spurts and starts.

"Women are victims of how they were taught to behave,” Tsushima once said


3. The heroine’s plight is heartrending

You don’t need to like the characters in order to appreciate a book, but it’s hard not to feel a strong empathy for our narrator. Her emotions are intensely felt, and at times she seems to be growing detached from reality. She dreams of helping a sick man by dabbing a towel on his back, and this simple gesture “gave me a dizzying sense of plummeting deeper and deeper. The sensation was a fierce joy.” She adjusts her own reality to match what others think. “Women are victims of how they were taught to behave,” Tsushima once said.

And Tsushima’s own life was a strong inspiration for her fiction (“I only write things familiar to me”), which aids its verisimilitude. She experienced the abandonment she describes in Territory of Light (and her other work) when her father, the novelist Osamu Dazai, took his own life when she was one year old.

4. It’s painfully plausible about parenthood

There is no sugar-coating in Territory of Light, and in having sole responsibility for her daughter, the narrator experiences the frustrations of being a parent in full. She complains when her child cries at night and wonders why adults can’t have tantrums too. When she leaves her off at the daycare centre, “the moment when she separated herself from me was a palpable relief.” She goes out at night to reclaim her old life, recklessly leaving her child alone. Like all parents, she wants her daughter to be happy, if partly for selfish reasons. “Her daily intake of joy ought to leave her so knocked out that she would sleep soundly at night.”

But this is not a depressing book. It sings with truth, and is full of headstrong life. Elsewhere, Tsushima wrote of her “firm belief that misfortune is not always bad. Happiness can spoil people. On the contrary, people can become rich by unhappiness. Unhappy people are given a chance to discover true human nature.” Territory of Light is packed with this truth.

5. It may be the best value book you’ve read

Because of the richness, the complexity, the spacious density - because of everything I’ve described above and everything I haven’t - Territory of Light is a book whose brisk length deceives. I have read it three times now and feel as though I am still only part-way through. Pick it up, and it will become a brittle but welcoming friend for life.

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