Child of Fortune

One 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 1986 translation of Child of Fortune. It, too, tells the story of a divorced mother, Koko, and her daughter, Kayako, though in this case mother and daughter live most if the time separately: Koko in her own apartment, Kayako with her mother’s sister:

“At New Year she had simply moved in – alone – with Koko’s sister and begun going to school from there… – At Auntie’s they don’t make all the children do the stuff you make me do, Mom. When I told them that I clear up after dinner, and wash and iron my own things, and even sew on buttons, they were sorry for me. I was so embarrassed.-“

As with the narrator of Territory of Light, Koko can appear a feckless mother – and this is certainly how her family sees her. Kayako tells her that she visits her once a week because, according to her Aunt, “we can’t let your mother out of our sight or there’s no telling what she’ll get up to next.-“ Kayako has ambitions to go to a private Catholic school rather than a municipal junior high and is studying for the entrance exams. Koko, meanwhile, makes a living teaching piano but has little interest in her work – “though there was a piano in her apartment it was a while since she had even lifted the lid.” Their characters contrast in almost every way: Koko drifts through life whereas Kayako plans for her future; Kayako often appears more mature than Koko who can be annoyingly childish, for example when her daughter comes to visits:

“Close on seven o’clock the doorbell rang. Koko deliberately did not go to the door. The chimes sounded again. Then there was the click of a key in the lock.”

Roles are reversed to the point that Kayako has to tell her mother to have a bath, and then clean the bath tub for her.

Koko’s relationship with her daughter is in danger of further complication when she suspects she has fallen pregnant. The father is an old friend and irregular lover, Osada, who has acted as a go-between between her and her ex-husband in the past. The pregnancy makes her think with regret of a previous lover, Doi, who was very good to Kayako when she was younger, but who returned to his wife when she fell pregnant after Koko has resisted the idea:

“When Doi’s second child was born, Koko had actually welcomed the change at first, turning it into the opportunity she needed to leave him, but before very long she was stricken with a hopeless frustration, until she twisted and moaned in bed; frustration at herself, at having let Doi go, at having failed to take action.”

Now pregnant, she is surprised at her own lack of concern:

“Now, with her belly actually swelling, Koko was so unworried that it was even a letdown.”

Initially she has not intention of telling Osada: “the baby’s paternity was too insignificant to worry about; she was imply going to be producing another child and that was all there was to it.” Though her relationship with Kayako suggests this attitude may be rather cavalier, Koko’s refusal to turn to others is understandable given both their frequent disapproval and concurrent attempts to run her life for her. Her sister consistently undermines any efforts Koko makes to look after Kayako, even offering to adopt her, and when she discovers Koko’s pregnancy, complains it is too late for an abortion. Osada, too, develops his own plans when he finds out without thinking to consult Koko. Koko meanwhile attempts to be true to herself, and in particular the childlike spirit she learned from her disabled brother who died when he was Kayako’s age:

“One thing, though, was certain: she had never betrayed the small child she had been: the child who had pined for her brother in the institution; the child who had watched her mother and sitter resentfully, unable to understand what made them find fault with her grades, her manners, her language… in the long run her choices had always remained true to her childhood self.”

Her desire for independence is to be admired, and perhaps her attitude towards her daughter is more about discouraging her from relying on others than a lack of care. The novel is given depth by Koko’s memories which show her to be a complex and sometimes contradictory character. As in Territory of Light, dreams are also important. A dream of being on a boat, unsure whether she is alone or not, reflects her uncertainty over relationships, sometimes encouraging others to become close, at others isolating herself. Child of Fortune is another rich novel from Tsushima, rejecting any suggestion that life should only be lived one way, capturing the spirit of those who, although uncertain and confused, aim to carve out their own path.

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6 Responses to “Child of Fortune”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    How timely! Oddly enough, I was actually looking at this in Waterstones Piccadilly earlier this week, wondering whether you had read and reviewed it. One of my loose aims for the future is to get better at picking the books in translation that will work for me following a few misfires from my Classics Club list. I’ve been toying with the idea of giving this author a try, possibly with Territory of Light, but I need to do a little more research. Maybe a kindle sample is the way to go, just to get a feel for her style – then if I like it, I can buy the physical book.

    • 1streading Says:

      I think you would like her. You could try the £1 Of Dogs and Walls in the mini-Penguin Classics which came out last year. Territory of Light is out in a cheaper paperback edition with a rather nice cover in April.

      • JacquiWine Says:

        That’s a great idea! Thanks. I didn’t realise that Penguin had included one of her pieces in that series. It’s a great way of sampling a *new* writer’s work.

  2. Caroline Says:

    An author I’m interested to explore. I guess I would go with Territory of Light first but this sounds very good. I like the use of dreams in books. I feel Japanese authors use them quite regularly.

    • 1streading Says:

      It does seem to be a common feature of Japanese literature and it is certainly prominent in the two Tsushima novels I have read. I’ve now ordered a collection of her stories so will be interested to see what they are like.

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