Territory of Light by Yūko Tsushima is an #OwnVoices Japanese fiction novel about a woman whose husband leaves her, forcing her to start her life anew with her three-year-old daughter in a small Tokyo apartment, where she confronts a deep sense of identity loss, loneliness, and motherhood.
When I saw that Osamu Dazai’s daughter had a new book out on the shelves, I jumped at the chance to read it! Osamu Dazai is one of my favourite Japanese authors. Similarly to her father, Tsushima writes stories that are steeped in emotions and thoughts that are very personal to her as an individual; a trait that was quite evident in her novel, Territory of Light.
The story reads very much like a personal memoir of the woman’s trials and tribulations of becoming a single mother in the wake of marital separation. The first-person narration is vastly intimate and cautious, almost as if the character is carefully writing down her darkest thoughts and feelings as a way of expunging it from her heart and mind. The unforgivingly honest voice and revelations concerning the woes of parenthood amid a hectic tornado of identity crisis and midlife regrets was highly contemplative. There were moments where I felt like an emotional voyeur due to the sheer openness of the feelings shared. This expression also gives off a spirit of strangeness that flirts with the line of surrealism that I found immensely provocative and unputdownable.
Thematically, Territory of Light felt like a circumspect study in the life of women who are so focused on their familial obligations that when they no longer have that foundation or connection, they crumble into psychologically fucked-up pools of self-doubt and madness. The more that I read about the main character’s struggles, the more convinced I became of her life being an intricately insightful exploration of feministic ideals of empowerment in post-war Japan, specifically during the 1970s and 1980s when women were starting to put aside expected traditions of domestic husbandry and child-rearing for pursuit of employment and self-expression.
However, even with all of these intelligently fascinating facets, Territory of Light definitely won’t be something that every reader shall find pleasure in, more so if you’re in search of a more typical reading experience. The book can prove challenging as it requires some level of concentration. The timeline is highly dishevelled, without a structured cohesive presentation or chronology. Each chapter is akin to a short story in the day and life of our single mother; a small motif in the mosaic of her complicated search for independence. Moreover, she is highly unlikable with her narrowminded perceptions of betrayal. These feelings then contribute to her overall negligent attitude towards her daughter and to selfish pettiness with the relationship between her daughter and her ex-husband.
Some of the fallout after being isolated from her father, with whom she’s close, causes the daughter to misbehave and throw horrible tantrums that border psychotic traits. Given that Tsushima was abandoned by her own father when she was a baby (he committed suicide) actually makes this whole element very penetrating as it pertains to her own issues of abandonment. It’s almost as if she took a big chunk of her feelings of inadequacy with familial relationships and sewed it into the very lines of Territory of Light to discuss the various aspects of her feelings via the lens of the main character and the main character’s kid.
Something else that caught my attention was the play with lighting. There are multiple descriptions of different lighting from natural to artificial, as well as of differing hues such as red and blue. Each exhibition is a motif that adds to that commentary on loneliness and loss with relation to identity that I chatted about earlier. These reminded me so much of Osamu Dazai, who was also an artist at instilling subtle symbolism into the stories he wrote, particularly with regard to society.
The red floor blazed in the setting sun. The long-closed, empty rooms pulsed with light.”
Overall, I loved the deep, intellectual essence of Territory of Light, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly put-off by the main character’s persona and the odd formula of the story’s progression. I do believe the novel is a worthy read for people who are avid readers of complex Japanese literature and fans of authors with convoluted writing styles, such as Osamu Dazai (of course), Kenzaburō Ōe, and Natsume Sōseki. However, if you aren’t interested in heavy and highly meditative types of books then this may not be for you.
3.75 red filters outta 5!