Territory of Light

Yuko Tsushima’s 1979 novel Territory of Light, now translated by Geraldine Harcourt, tells the story of a young woman who is separated from her husband and living alone with her two-year-old daughter. Its optimistic title reflects the new life she begins in her own apartment:

“I crowed to myself that this was the apartment for me. The red floor blazed in the setting sun. The long-closed, empty rooms pulsed with light.”

Even when the apartment floods as the result of a leak in the building’s water tower, it creates something magical in the eyes of the narrator and her daughter:

“Where there should have been a perfectly dry roof, water rippled and sparkled. A great expanse of clear water… That night, I took off my shoes and had a high old time in the roof-top ‘sea’ with my daughter.”

However, the territory of light also suggests an emptiness and her life is far from easy. Loneliness in particular afflicts her. When, looking for her daughter in the park, she comes across another mother she recognises from her daughter’s day-care, begins to imagine a scenario where the two children play together:

“’This is fun, don’t you think?’ the woman would ask me, dropping her voice, and I’d nod vigorously…”

On her daughter’s third birthday her idea of inviting people over, only results in a couple of hurried phone calls on the day to distant friends who have other plans. Once her daughter is asleep, her loneliness drives her to a bar where she gets drunk with another woman, returning home to find her husband waiting for her, appalled at her behaviour. (The other woman’s apartment is later burned down; in a novel where living space is important, this seems a commentary on her inability to provide a home, a fear which haunts the narrator). A homeless woman they greet on the way to the day-care centre also provides a potential future.

Later her loneliness will later see her sleep with one of the fathers from the day-care centre. When, having invited him to her apartment, she spills some ice, she is momentarily angry (“Did it never occur to you to give me a hand?”) but when he goes to leave she pleads with him, “Don’t leave like that. Please stay…” Her need for company is also demonstrated when Sugiyama, a young man her husband tutored, becomes a frequent visitor:

“Considering his age, though, there was always the worry that we’d seen the last of him, that he’d never give those Sundays at my apartment another thought.”

She invites him to stay with her (“Think of it as communal living”) and when he tells her he is not interested and, embarrassed by her request, hangs up the phone, she continues to talk to him while her daughter listens.

Her husband, Fujino, is a frequent if indistinct presence in the novel. The narrator seems torn between wanting their relationship to resume and feeling an anger she finds difficult to repress when she sees or hears from him. Initially she wonders, “Wasn’t there still a chance I’d hear him laugh it all off as a joke tomorrow?” When he phones her at work, however, “I tensed, determined to blame it all on Fujino.” She denies him access to his daughter, arguing that she needs to first adjust to her new life, but:

“What I was really thinking, deep down, was that with time she might forget her father and he might get over it.”

At times, they confront each other physically, as when he finds her drunk having left her daughter in the apartment:

“I scratched his face, pulled his hair, tried to throttle him. I was quickly flung off. Again I hurled myself on top of him and again I was sent flying.”

Yuko makes it difficult for the reader to form a judgement: we are given little indication of why the couple have split up (though there is reference to Fujino living with another woman), and each of them seem to vacillate between reason and rage. Rather than being a novel of taking sides, Yuko’s focus is the year the narrator needs to move on with her life; it is a novel of transition.

Her journey is unconscious as well as conscious, and the narrator’s dreams are an important part of her story:

“In my sleep, I wandered into some dunes. The wind – so strong I couldn’t keep my eyes open – was blasting my whole body with sand. There I was surrounded by sand as far as the eye could see, and all I could do was marvel at the vastness of the dunes.”

There is a temptation to interpret every dream she describes, but this is dangerously reductive. More importantly, her lack of autonomy in her dreams reflects the loss of control she feels in her life, creating a pervasive anxiety which characterises the novel’s atmosphere. Yuko is particularly successful at blending the narrator’s dreamscape into what is a largely domestic novel.

As we are told at the beginning, the novel ends when she moves out of her apartment one year later. The apartment is the transitional year between marriage and divorce, between one identity and another. (That the narrator’s married name is also the name of the owner, and therefore the building, emphasises this connection). Territory of Light is an excellent short novel which captures the movement between one life and another with unvarnished precision, the ‘muddling through’ the year-long ‘epiphany,’ that is typical of lived experience.

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7 Responses to “Territory of Light”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Excellent post, Grant, as always. I think I have this lurking as an ebook from NetGalley somewhere – I wish I was better at digital reading, I keep forgetting I have them….. :s

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Nice last paragraph. We do sometimes in life have these moments, sometimes quite extended, where an old life is closing off but the new one is yet to arrive. I’d imagine it’s quite tricky to capture.

  3. Child of Fortune | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] of my favourite reads of last year was Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, newly translated by Geraldine Harcourt. Luckily Penguin Classics have also released Harcourt’s […]

  4. Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt) | JacquiWine's Journal Says:

    […] August. Several other bloggers have written about this book. Here are links to relevant posts by Grant and […]

  5. Almost Lost in Translation Part 3 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] The Evenings by Gerard Reve (1947, translated by Sam Garnett in 2016)Gerard Reve (alongside Harry Mulisch and the already mentioned W F Hermans) was one of the three great Dutch writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Like Hermans, he was still largely unavailable in English by the twenty-first century, despite at one point moving to England and writing only in English. A later novel, Parents Worry, had been translated by Richard Huijing in 1990, but that was as far as it went. Then, in 2016, Sam Garret translated his first novel, The Evenings, a Dutch Catcher in the Rye, described by Philip Huff in the New York Review of Books as “either a deeply cynical or a very funny description of the last ten days of 1946, as seen through the eyes of the young office clerk Frits van Egters.” This was followed by the translation of two early novellas under the title Childhood in 2018. You can read Philip Huff’s review of The Evenings and Childhood here.Hill by Jean Giono (1929, translated by Paul Eprile in 2016)Of all the writers included here, Jean Giono probably least deserves his place. Giono has been regularly translated into English, at times only a year or two after the original publication, translations kept available by publishers such as Peter Owen and the Harvill Press. (His novella The Man Who Planted Trees seems to be permanently in print). Yet, despite this, Giono has not always seemed particularly recognised or respected. In 2016 the New York Review of Books published a new translation by Paul Eprile of his first novel, Hill, a meditation of man’s relationship with nature, with its vivid description of landscape and rural life. This was followed by a translation of his Herman Melville novel (Melville – also by Eprile), and A King Alone (translated by Alyson Waters), which reads like a detective story. The three together show Giono’s versatility and range, and they have recently been joined by his Occupation Diary from Archipelago Books. You can read my review of Hill here.The Kites by Romain Gary (1980, translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot in 2017)Like Gerard Reve, Romain Gary also wrote in English at times but this does not mean his work is easily available. Born in Lithuania, he immigrated with his mother to France as a teenager, and wrote mainly in French. He remains the only person to have won the Prix Goncourt twice (technically it can only be awarded to a writer once), the second time under his pseudonym Emile Ajar. In 2017 his previously untranslated final novel, The Kites, was translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot and published by New Directions in the US and Penguin Classics in the UK. The Kites tells the story of a small village in Normandy during the German occupation. In 2018 Penguin brought Gary’s wonderful autobiography, Promise at Dawn, back into print, and the same year Verba Mundi reissued The Roots of Heaven with a new introduction by David Bellos. The rest of his work remains out of print but there is, at least, now hope. You can read a review of The Kites by Adam Gopnik here.Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (1979-78, translated by Geraldine Harcourt 2017)Yuko Tsishima was a Japanese writer who had won numerous prizes in her own country but had only sporadically appeared in English (in the UK her only appearances had come thanks to the Women’s Press in the late 1980s). In 2017 Penguin Classics published Territory of Light translated by Geraldine Harcourt, who had long translated and advocated Tsishima’s work. A deceptively simple novel, it’s the story of a single mother and her young child. It was followed by a reprinting of Child of Fortune (this seems an admirable tactic of Penguin) and the inclusion of Of Dogs and Walls among the fifty mini-books which celebrated Penguin Modern Classics in 2018. Sadly Geraldine Harcourt died in 2019 and we can only hope someone else will take up the baton for Tsishima’s work. You can read my review of Territory of Light here. […]

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