Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima: A review

A reader who was expecting a lot of drama and excitement from this spare and slender (less than 200 pages) novel would be sorely disappointed. It is a narrative of a year in the life of a recently separated young mother and her two-year-old, turning three-year-old in that year, daughter. It is a meditation on what it was like to be a single parent, a woman, in postwar Japan. The time frame of the novel is not mentioned but it can be assumed to be the '70s. The book was published in 1978.

The book explores this young mother's coming to terms with her new life, learning to stand on her own two feet and become independent. It also details her relationship with her young child and the surprising fact that she sometimes leaves the sleeping child alone in her apartment at night while she goes out to run errands. As a mother, this seemed appalling to me and I wondered if it really was accepted practice at the time or if it simply was a product of the writer's imagination.

While the cultural context is certainly identifiably Japanese, the introspective nature of the narrative and its exploration of the isolation and loneliness of the single mother would resonate with many from diverse cultures who have experienced that situation.

The chronology of the narrative is not always straightforward. The author sometimes shifted into reverse to make a point and that was occasionally confusing.

The mother and daughter live in a light-filled apartment in Tokyo. The light is so bright that the protagonist sometimes has to squint and yet she often feels surrounded by darkness and uncertainty as she tries to make her own way in the world.

Meantime, her estranged husband has moved in with another woman and does not contribute to the support of his daughter. In fact, he shows very little interest in the child. The mother is assisted by her own mother and she has reliable daycare for her daughter while she is at work. But while it may take a village to raise a child, this village does not seem to include the child's father as a resident.

I was a bit perplexed by this precocious child's conversational abilities which seemed quite advanced and sophisticated for a two- to three-year-old. I don't think I've ever met a child of that age who was able to carry on such a conversation, so I had a hard time envisioning that.

But what I really liked about this novel were the writer's descriptions of the qualities of light and of color. She painted vivid pictures which made it easy to imagine the scenes. Of course, I was reading the novel in translation and so I must acknowledge here the skill of the translator, Geraldine Harcourt, in rendering those images into English. The collaboration of writer and translator was itself a work of art.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  


  1. It seems that the darkness the mother feels, despite the excessive light surrounding them, is in itself a metaphor for her own hopeless situation. I'm glad that, despite some caveats, you liked this one so overall.


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