Judging by most of the Japanese novels that make it into English, you might think that modern Japanese lit is all about wild sheep chases, forked tongues, and chopped up bodies. The Japanese, one might think, are truly hen. Thus, on a recent visit to the bookstore, I was happy to discover Woman on the Other Shore by Mitsuyo Kakuta, a novel about two relatively normal 35-year-old women – a stay-at-home mom, and a single woman who has her own business.
This is not another one of those books about the so-called Mommy Wars, although there are some self-righteous SAHMs going on about mothers who work. Basically, this is a book about friendship, or the lack thereof. Sayoko, the mother, can’t seem to fit in with the other moms when she goes to the park. She winds up “park-hopping,” changing venues every time the moms start to get cliquey. If you live in Japan, you’ve probably heard about the kind of ostracism practiced by moms in parks.) The other woman, Aoi, was bullied throughout her school years, and finds it difficult to forge close relationships.
When Sayoko decides to give up park-hopping and begins a job at Aoi’s company, the two form an unlikely friendship, which is threatened by the latter’s dark past.
I liked this carefully constructed, award-winning book very much, but it took me a while to get through it. For one thing, I had to keep stopping to clean my house. See, one part of Aoi’s business is a housekeeping service. I’d read, “…her kitchen was a hellhole of garbage, grease, and food scraps, the washing area next to the bathtub was overrun by mold and mildew, and the toilet bowl was surrounded by thick layers of dust on the floor and practically black inside” and I’d think, “I’d better do something about that mold in the shower!”
I also felt that the book sometimes hit a little too close to home. Like Sayoko, I’ve had a hard time fitting in with the mothers at my daughter’s school. While it’s partly my own fault (I should have been drinking instant coffee with the other mothers instead of using my precious time to work on my novel and/or anthology in the library!!) and I realize that as an older, foreign mother with a differently disabled child, it’s virtually impossible for me to become close to the younger Tokushima-born women who can’t wait to mainstream their children, I do at times feel the shame of the ostracized. AND I worry about my kids growing up in this kind of society.
Having said that, Woman on the Other Shore is a book worth reading. Thanks to Wayne P. Lammers for translating it.