Friday, 13 October 2017

Book Review: Woman on the Other Shore by Kakuta Mitsuyo it’s pretty common to hear and read about bullying at school or at the work place, but the sad truth is that it can happen everywhere, at every time and to everybody. As human beings we are highly social creatures with the more or less urgent desire to interact with other people and to take the best possible position in group hierarchy. Despite our efforts we always run the risk to find ourselves suddenly excluded, cruelly exposed or even violently chased… and often for strange, if not trivial reasons based on real or imagined differences. One of the protagonists of Woman on the Other Shore by Kakuta Mitsuyo is a timid stay-at-home mother who resumes work because she wants to give her little daughter a chance to learn social skills and make friends with other children her age, while the other is her employer who seems to care little about what others think of her.

Kakuta Mitsuyo (角田 光代) was born in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, in March 1967. She studied literature at Waseda University in Tōkyo already with the intention to become a writer. She started writing novels for girls and not yet graduated, she brought out her first, award-winning novel 幸福な遊戯 (1990; A Blissful Pastime). She has been a full-time writer ever since producing an impressively big body of work. The most important novels of the prolific author are エコノミカル・パレス (2002; Economical Palace), 空中庭園 (2002; Hanging Garden), Woman on the Other Shore (対岸の彼女: 2004), The Eight Day (八日目の蝉: 2007), ツリーハウス (2010; Tree House) and 紙の月 (2012; Paper Moon). All of the mentioned along with the short story collection かなたの子 (2012; The Children Beyond) won important Japanese literary prizes, but only two of her books and a few individual short stories have been translated into English so far. The author is currently working on a translation of Murasaki Shikebu’s The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese. Kakuta Mitsuyo lives in Tōkyo, Japan, with her second husband, musician Kōno Takehiro.

At the beginning of Woman on the Other Shore Sayoko Tamura is thirty-five years old and a stay-at-home mother. In the three years since her daughter Akari was born, she never managed to make friends with any mothers whom she met in the various parks of her Tōkyo neighbourhood and she watches with increasing alarm that, much like herself, Akari is too timid to play with other children. For her daughter’s sake Sayoko decides to resume work after a pause of nearly five years, the time that she has been married to Shuji, and to put Akari in nursery school.
“[…] She bought recruitment magazines and scanned the job listings, looking for anything that said No experience necessary. Homemakers welcome. She’d gone to a number of interviews and been turned down every time, for whatever reason. For each appointment, she had to leave Akari with her mother-in-law, who invariably had a snide remark or two to offer. But Sayoko refused to let the repeated jabs get to her; […]”
Then Aoi Narahashi invites her to an interview and they click with each other at once. Not only are they the same age, they also went to the same university in Tōkyo where Sayoko studied English Literature and Aoi Philosophy. The job in question is to start a housecleaning sideline of Platinum Planet, a small travel agency that Aoi founded after graduation, and to Sayoko’s delight she gets it. Although Sayoko still needs to find a place in nursery school for Akari, she plunges into her job training with full dedication and slowly learns to assert herself in the team.
“[…] All these years, a vague sense of guilt had been weighing her down—for quitting her job, for turning herself into a homebody, for thinking it such a bother to take Akari to the park, for rejoicing when it rained, for putting her daughter in school in spite of all the voices saying it was cruel—and she’d been in a mild state of depression. But now she could feel that it hadn’t been for nothing. It had all been leading somewhere.”
Sayoko admires self-assured and outgoing Aoi not imagining that as a teenager she was subject to bullying until her parents moved to provincial Gunma for her sake. It was Aoi’s – secret – high school friendship with Nanako that changed her, notably after the junior-year summer break that they passed together working in a seaside resort and that ended with them running away to Yokohama where they attempted double suicide on the spur of the moment. Twenty years later Aoi keeps yearning for another such close friend and seeks her among her employees, but behind her back they are up to revolt…

Superficially, Woman on the Other Shore may seem just another women’s novels meant to entertain and – maybe – to make a little fun of the traditional female role model. In fact, all relevant characters are rather stereotypical women, notably one of the protagonists who is a wife and mother in her mid-thirties finding work with a housecleaning service of all things, while men appear in secondary, not actually flattering roles. Consequently, I reckon that most male readers won’t feel particularly tempted by this book and I too was quite displeased with such “sexual segregation”. Probably because the author relied so much on clichés, I missed in her characters much of the psychological depth that dealing with issues like children’s socialisation, group dynamics and above all friendship (that is so hard to find and so easily lost) would have called for. The novel’s plot, in which the contemporary narrative surrounding Sayoko and Aoi alternates with flashbacks into Aoi’s high school days and mirrors at the same time her lost friendship to Nanako, is plausible and unspectacular, but engaging in its way. As befits a novel of this kind, the language is unpretentious, even colloquial most of the time and easy to read.

All things considered, Woman on the Other Shore by Kakuta Mitsuyo has been a rather pleasant read although unlike most reflections on nature as well as importance of friendship and human relations in general some of the conclusions that the protagonists draw as their story advances seem rather too simplified or even naïve to me. The focus on work done with full commitment as a means that helps to overcome timidity and to ignore bullying from others, for instance, is something that I can neither fully relate to nor believe. It may be that this attitude is too much part of Japanese culture for me. The bitchiness of women arbitrarily brought together in only-female groups, on the other hand, seems universal to me and it takes thicker skin than I ever managed to develop to get away from it unharmed. Although I’m not all praise about this novel, I still recommend it with good conscience.

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