Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt

Territory of Light: A Novel BY Yuko Tsushima. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 192 pages. $24.
The cover of Territory of Light: A Novel

The apartment is a steal, but it has idiosyncrasies: it’s on the top floor of a four-story office building located on a traffic island; the rooms shake and the windows rattle as buses, trains, and trucks trundle past. It is 1970s Tokyo, and the unnamed narrator of Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, a woman, newly separated from her husband, a single mother—the three in conjunction, she is now routinely reminded, define her particular status—no longer possesses an “ordinary” life. This home may be unusual, but it’s hers, and, on the plus side, there are windows on all sides and a red floor that glows brightly in the sun, emitting a burnished aura that saturates the rooms. “Ooh, it’s warm! It’s pretty!” her daughter shouts upon first entering the space. At least it’s not twice her budget, and no former occupants have committed suicide onsite, unlike previous properties she had been shown. (“They’ve changed the tatami and repainted the walls, but of course the gas valve is still in the same position,” the realtor grimly advises her as they visit the last in a series of available apartments within her range of specs.)

Tsushima, who died in 2016 at the age of sixty-eight, often wrote about outsiders, especially women who resist the patriarchal structures of conventional Japanese society. In Territory of Light— twelve slim chapters, twelve sparely rendered months — everything conspires to show the protagonist that she is not in control of her own existence and does not really know who she is. She can’t do anything right. The most everyday tasks seem onerous: putting her daughter to sleep, feeding herself, getting up for work on time, getting out of bed at all. Strangers, coworkers, and friends criticize her at every turn. Yet, the character’s shortcomings are not presented as failings, so much as moments that unravel and dissolve, slip through her fingers. Tsushima seems to ask: Why should these ordinary expectations be considered duties at all? Who is ordinary? Must this woman—or any other—really bow so deeply in deference? “I never learn,” the woman observes as she oversleeps every weekend, ignoring the faint mewling of her daughter in the other room, “I go on sleeping in on Sundays. I go for every minute I can get. I continue to meld my body into the bedclothes, believing the tiredness will vanish if I give it just a little longer.”

It is not only the mundane details of life that baffle the protagonist; she is replete with characterful contradictions: she swings uncontrollably between anger and joy, passivity and resentment, wry humor and crippling sorrow, love for her daughter and relief at the child’s absence. (Sounds pretty ordinary to me.) Territory of Light is written in blank, first-person prose that is both unabashed and deadpan—as if what the woman relays has somehow taken place without her. The world has agency, it acts upon her, she merely exists within it. “It was not so much hearing her crying as finding myself shouting vile abuse and feeling like smothering her,” she writes of her daughter, “I couldn’t decide whether I’d done this to myself or fallen for a ruse of unknown origin. What I’d failed to see so far, it turned out, was my own cruelty.”

Motherhood is lonely, single or no, and Territory of Light is a lonely book. It is also angry, unflinching, and sometimes ashamed, afraid. Even as the woman expresses careful and articulate fury at her situation, she begins to lose control of her body—her legs shake, the back of her throat aches. She is not, in fact, in control; she is excruciatingly alone. A powerful fear sinks in, one that is equal in strength to her rage, as she realizes her helplessness. Chastising her child, her feelings oscillate between relief and regret: “I wasn’t sure what I'd done. I was afraid of my child: that fear, which I could still feel inside me, was all I knew.” Territory of Light has the subtle, harrowing shades of Marie Darrieussecq’s My Phantom Husbandand Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, though both were written decades later. Like these works, Tsushima’s novel chronicles the life of a woman who is in the process of reconstituting herself in the face of an absence. It is not a neat story of awakening or transformation but of the fearful joy of the unobscured horizon, of how the freshly unstructured life gapes with promise and paralysis alike.

Tsushima’s narrator recognizes that she has unwittingly kept autonomous personhood at bay for most of her life, accepting what is expected of her without question. “All I had to do was follow his instructions,” she says of first settling down with her husband, who remains an indistinct figure throughout the novel. Now, she hazards for new models, observing mothers and women around her who are also alone. None of them offer promising signs: A fellow mother from daycare burns down the neighborhood block, a cheerful old local woman disappears, one woman drinks to abandon, another hurls herself beneath a train. The narrator balks at what appear to be her only possible futures. In her anxious mind, the lives of these women who do not conform are hijacked and made universal, serve as cautionary tales. She can be either a woman, unseen, alongside all other dutiful women; or she can be herself, exposed, that woman, yes her: mad, bad, depraved, and destitute. And what a shame, says the society that presents no viable alternative, but this happens, of course, see for yourself—the fate of the wayward female is sealed, tread lightly, choose wisely. (An effective strategy, to varying ends? Think of “Elena Ferrante” herself, who was forced from her privacy into a kind of public singularity: if she wasn’t a specific, identifiable woman, she must be a man or a plagiarist, maybe both, or dead.) Tsushima’s narrator observes her mother, a widow, and wonders at the comfort of bringing “together our solitudes—my mother’s, mine and my daughter’s.” Our disappointments, she might also have said, our rages, our private pains and resentments. Perhaps it is possible to take bittersweet succour in these familial female resemblances without acceding to their inevitability; to warm the cold comfort from within.

Anyone who has lived at the top of a building knows how the sky can take hold of you and become spectral—the clouds portend, certain slants of light arrest. In Territory of Light, this light and the apartment itself are characters—they shift and morph around the woman and her daughter as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives. The narrator believes that she has managed to protect her daughter "from the upheaval around her with the quantity of light,” as though it is endowed with existential beneficence. Imagine a sort of alternative "Yellow Wallpaper" situation, in which the walls are instead windows, the paper, light, and no madness (or jailkeeper husband) in sight. The lonely mind produces a particular quality of attention, and as she tests the possibilities of her new life, the narrator begins to feel as though she might be the source of everything around her: on a walk in the forest the trees watch her and whisper behind her back, and at home, as sunlight pours through the windows, she feels it aims to punish and paralyse her. Shapes and objects, colors glimpsed in passing, seem to mirror and recur, connive to convey some hidden message: vivid red splotches of overripe berries stain the pavement outside her house, like crimson ghosts of the blood spatters she saw on the tracks where a woman committed suicide, as if the tragedy has followed her home. She believes she must be complicit in a series of unrelated deaths in the neighborhood:

I couldn’t shake the feeling that deaths lay in wait for me at every turn. And I couldn’t help wondering what in the world they were trying to tell me, appearing like that, one after the other. . . . The local death rate that year had nothing to do with my having moved to the area. Why should it? Yet each time I met with another passing, my mind sought to link it with myself—to pin it on me.

Quotidian existence is punctured with lurid dreams that unsettle and confound. Faceless men groan and slump, their interchangeable faces and bodies give her a sense of dizzying and “fierce joy”: “the pleasure, that radiance that seemed made of fear itself.” In other dreams, she is mocked by former childhood classmates (Why are you such a loser?), the escape of caged tropical “lovebirds” fills her with overwhelming terror, and children buried neck-deep in sand dunes scream: “Those are the children who appear from the sand when the wind is up,” a stranger tells her, “Which is why all they can do is raise those cries. They cry out for a while, then die. They can never leave here or make their presence known.” These strange visions stud the careful prose of the novel with fantasy and radiance and lend its narrator a kind of power as she becomes emboldened, believing that those visions have numinous qualities. “I had the feeling that I finally understood what the series of deaths had been trying to tell me. The light of heat, the energy. My body was fully endowed with heat and energy,” she thinks, watching an explosion in the night sky, which later turns out to be the combustion of a small chemical factory on the outskirts of town. “I couldn’t help but see myself standing there last night, transfixed by the glowing red sky, never sparing the approach of death a thought.” The light comes from without, as well as within.

Territory of Light is an I-novel, a Japanese genre from the early twentieth century that now reads as a more beguiling, less embarrassed-sounding version of today’s autofiction. Tsushima was the daughter of the famous author Osamu Dazai, who also wrote I-novels, and who drowned himself in a canal near his family home, when Tsushima was just one year old. Orphans, abandonment, ghostly patriarchal figures, suicide, and water haunt this work. But other histories weigh heavily, too. In a 1997 interview with Margaret Atwood, Tsushima bristled at a reference to Junichiro Tanizaki’s famous essay on Japanese aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows, saying “I think a major issue is to fight the way that Japan’s self-image is so often supplanted by the past without our being aware of it.” Territory of Light, with its bleached interiors, harbors not the shadows of Tanizaki’s treatise, which describes the “visible darkness” of the Japanese home, in which the Japanese woman lives “behind layer after layer of screens and doors.” Tanizaki’s Japanese woman is shadowy, veiled and inscrutable, dark like “the darkness in which ghosts and monsters were active.” In Territory of Light we do not find this woman of preternatural obscurity, from whose mouth darkness emerges, pouring from “those black teeth, from the black of her hair, like the thread from the great earth spider.” In Tsushima’s unburdened territory, every corner is filled with light and there is nowhere to hide, for there need not be—not for those who seek illumination.

Emily LaBarge is a Canadian writer living in London.