In 1978, the acclaimed novelist Yuko Tsushima published “Territory Of Light” a chapter at a time in the Japanese monthly literary magazine Gunzo, each chapter representing one month in a year. Tsushima is well-known in Japan, but is relatively unknown to Anglophone readers. The small amount of her work that has been translated into English is her most autobiographical component, and it’s autobiographical in way that might be unfamiliar to Anglophone audiences. Long before the word “autofiction” was coined in French or English, Japanese authors had been writing gently fictionalized accounts of their lives in what is known as shishosetsu, or “I-fiction.” These works are written as reflections or examinations of the author’s life, and the strikingly clear realism of the genre has no real analog in Western literature. Tsushima’s work frequently deals with the experiences of single mothers in 20th-century Japan’s intensely patriarchal and work-obsessed society, and “Territory Of Light” follows this model — the story is told from the perspective of an unnamed woman, who recently divorced her husband and is tasked with raising their young daughter alone.
The novel closely follows the minutiae of day-to-day life in Tokyo — the protagonist takes her daughter to daycare, holds down a desk job and embarks on endless strings of errands and chores, often dragging her unwilling daughter along. The incessant pace of life gives the story a sense of constant motion, even as the protagonist’s loneliness presses in from all sides. Very few other characters receive as much development — they just flit in and out of the protagonist’s attention and are occasionally the subject of tentative, quietly desperate acts. She has an ill-advised one-night stand with an acquaintance, she gets excessively drunk at a bar with strangers, she invites one of her ex-husband’s pathetic students over for lack of any other real friends. Many of the side characters are beautifully sketched in outline, and the reader is painfully aware of the social barriers between the protagonist and the rest of the world. She is reminded again and again that divorced mothers are at a decisive disadvantage — one of her acquaintances from the daycare go as far as to tell her she would be “at the bottom of the heap.” Even as we see the protagonist begin to spiral without support — drinking heavily to stay asleep at night, having strange visions of death, showing up late for work, briefly wishing her daughter was dead — nothing drastic or cruel happens. There are moments where it seems as though something absolutely terrible is going to happen (it never does) or some great juncture in the story is going to happen (it never does), but life stabilizes itself somehow and the protagonist must continue as best she can.
Her loneliness also seems related to how intently she focuses on her surroundings, and the sensitive and somewhat sad way she apprehends them. The novel provides a crystal-clear yet utterly idiosyncratic vision of Tokyo, following the protagonist’s vision down long associative trails and occasionally into near-delirium. She describes a stand of trees as “some plant species, expelled from the sky, which in a fit of disgruntlement had stiffened into these three brooding pillars as it landed.” More often, though, experience is just given a luminous rinse and left to stand on its own, unmarred by any self-consciously “novelistic” processing. When her daughter drops origami paper from their fourth-story roof, the protagonist briefly pictures it: “I could only conclude that every sheet in the pack … had floated down, one after the other, taking its time and enjoying the breeze, onto the tiled roof below.” Shortly after this scene, she has to apologize profusely to her neighbors for the trash on their roof. One gets the sense that Tsushima endows her character with such a powerful sense of perception as a way to cope with an existence so crushing it threatens to overwhelm her. This is an incredibly effective combination, and despite the understated tone, the novel has an unexpected emotional weight.
Since the novel was originally published in serial, each chapter is relatively self-contained, and its compilation into a novel can feel awkward at times. Each chapter contains a relatively limited and yet wholly self-contained arc, and the novel has no overall trajectory beyond the allotted space of a year. With a novelist any less perceptive and skilled at making the everyday glitter, this structure wouldn’t work at all — Tsushima’s airy prose, however, makes the recounting of small moments prismatic rather than static.