Review published on May 17, 2017.
This Japanese novel is a self-confessed homage to the serial novel. It is centred in the main on one year as Mitsuki, in her mid-fifties, has to place her elderly and frail mother in a care home, watches her transferred to a hospital to die and deals with the funeral and her own grieving, all the time aware that her husband has a lover and is secretly planning to divorce her. But nobody lives in a void of today; everybody is a creation of their past life and carries deep memories, so it is also an exploration of Mitsuki’s past history and that of her family.
In this dense and philosophical novel there is an interweaving of the practicalities of caring for an older and increasingly disabled parent with the emotional cost. This is undoubtedly an issue that large numbers of readers around the world will have had to deal with. Although Mitsuki has had an often hostile relationship with her mother as the less favoured daughter, she will take primary responsibility and will inevitably have to review the nature of her relationship with her mother as they both age. Mizumura also explores how this impacts on other family relationships and friendships too and how a “carer” might develop emotionally.
Being heavily focused on the family, this novel also explores family history over several generations, with changing Japanese morals and mores – both, it should be said, the “polite” version and the harsher realities that underlie it – and how the women of the previous generations, both rich and poor, have coped. For somebody largely unaware of Japanese history, especially from the female perspective, this can be particularly eye-opening.
Another layer of exploration is literature and how we allow it – the stories – to feed on our feelings and impact on our lives. Mitsuki is a lecturer and translator in French and then English and books are a key “character” in her life. So the novel uses this trait to examine both this theme, Japanese exposure to foreign literature and then Japan’s move to more “Western” – increasingly worldwide – social and cultural norms.
As the novel deals with often quite harsh difficulties of family life in depth, if you have suffered similar this might not be a comfortable read, or one that can be raced through. But the offset is the care for the characters and the detailed and, in spite of it all, compassionate pictures of their lives is totally compelling if you have curiosity about women’s lives, literature, or Japanese culture. One that book groups can mull over for hours.
Hilary White 5/5
Inheritance from Mother by Minae Mizumura
Other Press 9781590517826 hbk May 2017
The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler
SECOND OPINION: To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann
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