Our nameless narrator’s husband has just announced he is leaving her. Adrift with a three-year old daughter she attempts to rebuild a life, but 1970s Japan is an unforgiving place for divorced women and shame, sadness and responsibility weigh heavily on her. Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima is a strange little book; its quietly powerful, sparse language perfectly captures despair and isolation in the wake of separation.
Finding a new place to live proves tricky and her ex-husband urges her to move back to her mum:
‘She must be lonesome, and besides, how are you going to manage with the little one on your own? With you two at your mom’s, I could leave you without worrying.’
It takes a composed mind to calmly digest this kind of suggestion, but it’s 1970s Japan so what can a woman do? Our heroine, for that’s what she is, stoically goes about rebuilding her life, but hardly knows where to start. She refuses her ex-husband access to their daughter, whose behaviour turns increasingly erratic. Dealing with him is too painful. He gets angry and recruits friends to warn her of the horrors of divorce, as if it were her choice: ‘Believe me, nothing goes right for a woman on her own.’
Rather than listening to her, people tell her what to do. Along the way she comes across the debris of divorce: unmoored lonely women, ostracised by society. Unavoidably, our heroine starts to lose her mind.
I felt deep sympathy for Tsushima’s protagonist. The author having been through it herself adds a layer of depth; this must be very much what it felt like.
Territory of Light is a quieter more restrained version of Elena Ferrante’s fiery The Days of Abandonment. The Japanese and Neapolitan way of dealing with heartache couldn’t be more different, but the sense of isolation and despair is universal.
Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima is published by Penguin Books, 121 pages.
Interested in Japanese literature? Try one we have reviewed. Haruki Murakami’s Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage or Killing Commendatore, Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, or Natsuo Kirino’s Out.