Territory of Light By Yuko Tsushima
New York, NY; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019, 192 pp, $24.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Domenica Ruta
A single mother moves with her young daughter into a new apartment suffused with light, but it is in the vacant apartment downstairs where she lurks in the middle of the night that her heart finds fleeting peace. In this transcendent novel by the late Yuko Tsushima, vacancies both real and symbolic become the space where human emotions not permitted to exist elsewhere are cast and poorly contained. The top-floor apartment, with its blood red floors, abundant windows, and symbolic promise of renewal, is at once a physical incarnation of a desperate woman’s direst hopes and fears.
Set in 1970s Tokyo, Territory of Light is ostensibly based on the author’s lived experience. Tsushima never names the female protagonist, leaving her to be known only in terms of the husband who abandoned her, Fujino. She works as an archivist at a radio library. Her husband, a fickle aspiring actor and producer, urges his castoff wife to move in with her widowed mother, but a combination of pride and shame make this option out of the question for her. Her first steps toward independence are tenuous, as she relies on her husband to help find a new home for her and their daughter. “I was enjoying the feeling of being swept along by a man … All I had to do was follow his instruction.” But the comfort of their looking together becomes farce as they tour apartments that are increasingly more expensive and untenable. Just then, an auspicious apartment on the fourth floor of an unremarkable office building becomes available.
“Tsushima imbues even a Sunday walk in the park with the dark specter of doom, creating a tension richly and deftly layered onto the ordinary struggle of a single mother.”
Territory of Light is a story of floods and fires, bedwetting and vomit, a story composed of elements both earthly and ethereal. A small leak somewhere in her new building becomes a flood on the floors below, and she is unfairly held responsible. Another single mother she meets in the park is the cause of a fire that destroys a building in the neighborhood. Later, the mentally handicapped son of a different single mother falls to his death while playing alone on the deck; trouble is always adjacent to the protagonist’s life like this, as though an otherworldly warning, a rebuke saying: in a parallel life, this could be your fire, your flood, your child dead. Tsushima imbues even a Sunday walk in the park with the dark specter of doom, creating a tension so richly and deftly layered onto the ordinary struggle of a single mother that lines of metaphor dissolve leaving only the shadow of dread on every page. Not all is existential and elemental in the life of this woman and her little daughter. The realities of life as a single mother are all too real; her loneliness and isolation and feelings of resentment toward her toddler grow in proportion to her lack of sleep.
Every week, the morning of my one day off plays out the same way. “There’s milk, sliced bread, whatever you want, just help yourself,” I tell her, not opening my eyes. The lull that follows allows me to drop trustingly off again, until my daughter breaks into more tears: I spilled the milk, I wet my pants. The glass broke … And yet I never learn: I go on sleeping in on Sundays. I go for every minute I can get. I continue to meld my body into the bedclothes, believing the tiredness will vanish if I give it just a little longer.
But she gets up, day after day, sometimes cursing her daughter, sometimes keeping her home from school in her exhaustion. She leaves her alone to go drinking at night. In desperation for adult contact, she gets attached to a college boy, the former student of her ex-husband, only to be humiliated and rejected by him as well.
Where is her husband in all this? The narrator is left to speculate. He calls her at work sometimes, angry she cannot give him more attention over the phone, while her boss listens in at their open plan office. Then her husband disappears for months without a word. She hears he has taken up with an older woman; she feels no jealousy. Every person in her small life—her mother, her former friends, even the director of the PTA who sleeps with her one pitiable night—urge her to reconcile with her husband, as though she were the one who left the marriage. Even a bad marriage is better than no marriage at all. The narrator steadfastly rejects this and files for divorce, where she is treated by the double indignity of a mediator who places all responsibility and blame on her, and an ex-husband who cannot even show up to sign divorce papers.
Life marches on. Time in this novel has the feeling of a slow, oppressive progression and stagnation all at once. Broken into twelve chapters and published monthly in the Japanese literary magazine Gunzo from 1978- 1979, Territory of Light chronicles the first year of Mrs. Fujino’s and her daughter ’s life on their own. This translation, by the lapidary Geraldine Harcourt, has the compression of poetry, the crackle of hyperrealism and the gloaming tension of a winter nap in late afternoon. In the end, the narrator decides to leave the top floor apartment that was her cocoon into independence. This setting, once so full of promise, looks different now, its “reddish light so bright it was almost suffocating.” She moves with her daughter to a more ordinary residential building with much less light, but more hospitable to children. No more vacancies hovering just below the surface; this new home comes with a cranky downstairs neighbor, a middle-aged woman who, the old tenants warn, yells at them through the walls. The narrator is undaunted. There will be new troubles, and new opportunities, as well. A feeling of hope and triumph can radiate from nowhere special.
Domenica Ruta is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir With or Without You, a darkly hilarious mother-daughter story and a chronicle of a misfit nineties youth. Her most recent book is Last Day: A Novel. She lives in New York City.