Inheritance from Mother by Minae Mizumura, tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter – a #BTBA2018 flashlight

Reinvention is a popular topic in novels written by, for or about women. I’m not sure why it is so prevalent, or gender specific, but I know it’s not a character arc I associate with male protagonists. Call it the heroine’s journey: the female character, out of dissatisfaction with her current life, or because it is crumbling around her, goes on a journey of self discovery. She upends her routines, re-examines her relationships and priorities, perhaps has an adventure or two along the way. If things don’t end tragically (always a possibility) by the final chapter she is successfully installed in a new life – by way of a move to Tuscany, getting her groove back or finding solace in food, religion & romance. Vague dissatisfaction and regret are the monsters the heroine must overcome to reach her happily ever after. In Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother that heroine is named Mitsuki Katsura.

Mitsuki handles the discovery of her husband’s affair, his second of their marriage, with a surprising lack of fuss. Maybe because they’re both in their mid-fifties and childless. Or because they’ve been gradually growing apart for some time. Over the past several years she has been occupied with caring for her elderly parents – first her father and, more recently, her mother. Her ongoing role of caretaker has depleted Mitsuki’s emotional reserves. Plainly put – she is exhausted. At the same time, in all aspects of her life, she remains almost ruthlessly efficient. While the catalyst for change is her husband’s betrayal (though, in the context of this particular book “betrayal” implies more drama than Mizumura’s prose allows), it is her mother’s death which provides Mitsuki with the means to leave him and start over.

Mizumura’s uses chapter titles in Inheritance from Mother, a charming practice that seems to have fallen out of fashion among writers. Chapter One is “The Long Telephone Call In Lieu of a Wake”, which begins in the middle of a phone call between Mitsuki and her sister, calculating how much they will inherit now that their mother is dead. We learn that it is a substantial amount, even for the sister who married into a wealthy family. Her mother, Noriko, was a vain and demanding woman towards whom Mitsuki and her sister feel mostly animosity. Theirs is an extremely complicated relationship, even in the realm of mothers and daughters. Their family history unfolds in a series of flashbacks and extended passages of

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introspection. Mitsuki replays the pivotal moments of her life, as well as those in the lives of her sister, mother and grandmother. Women unwilling to sacrifice their personal happiness in order to fulfill the role of selfless wife/mother/daughter.

Discussions of literature, Japanese culture and history are present throughout the text. Minae Mizumura wrote a book of criticism: The Fall of the Japanese Language in the World of English which was translated into English and published by Columbia University Press. Without going in depth – suffice to say that some of the themes and preoccupations she discusses there are also present in Inheritance from Mother. Like when she segues from a description of how Japanese marriages were arranged by previous generations to an explanation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

Western novels made much of lover and lovers, an influence that came to Japan after the country opened its doors to the West. Although the eponymous hero of the classic Tale of the Genji was known for his amorous adventures, in Japanese literature romantic love had always been merely one theme among many – certainly less central than the change of seasons. The Western novels that had reached Japan in the last century and a half were almost all romance novels, transforming Japanese readers – especially women – into romantics. Women became more particular. They grew discontented with the husbands chosen for them by parents, relatives, or neighbors, longing like Emma for someone to whisper thrilling words of love. Their dissatisfaction with reality increased until, like Noriko, they rejected barbers’ sons and fled, each to her “Yokohama.” Not all of them went so far as to commit suicide, of course, but they led small, discontented lives and then died.

Novels are heartless.

Like the classic Japanese literature Mizumura mentions in the passage above, she is more concerned with the symbolic change of seasons than soap opera melodrama. While this is a story of reinvention, it is also one about the seasons of life. Mitsuki is entering Autumn – and she is doing it alone. I was reminded of May Sarton’s journals, particularly Journal of aSolitude, in which she quietly records her day-to-day life – the life of a single woman, without children, in middle age.

A complete lack of drama, though, can be disconcerting. There is a tonal flatness to Inheritance from Mother. Only in scenes with Noriko do we experience an exuberant, animated presence, – one that easily overshadows all the other characters. Juliet Winters Carpenter manages to preserve an idiosyncrasy of Minae Mizumura’s writing: an absence of crests and troughs in the plot. And a sense of stillness, the filtering out of background/ambient noise from the prose, which Carpenter renders beautifully into English.

We are used to reading about more volatile relationships between women. Relationships that often revolve around men. Yet, Mitsuki’s relationship with her mother, her sister, the female friend she asks to act as an intermediary between her and her husband once she decides to leave him, all get more page space than the cheating husband or the dead father (who appears to have been no more than a cipher even when alive). But most of the novel is dedicated to Mitsuki’s exploration of what the future looks like to her. Complicated ideas are explored in these pages, in ambitious (if quiet) ways. And while Mitsuki may resent and disapprove of her mother, she scrupulously does her duty as a daughter. Eventually realizing that you can’t always wait for happiness – sometimes you have to take it. Something that readers from any culture can relate to.

Title: Inheritance From Mother
Author: Minae Mizumura
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publisher: Other Press (New York, 2017)
ISBN: 978-1-59051-783-3

Accabadora by Michela Murgia (translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella)

Accabadora is about adoption.  It’s also a coming of age story and a mother-daughter drama.  It’s about choices, consequences and secrets… about being allowed to die with dignity… about the collision between the old and the new.   Accabadora is about a lot of things, most of which don’t have much in common with each other.  And while, overall, Michela Murgia has put out a well-written novel (winning multiple awards) for me the plot became increasingly uneven the more I read.  It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, leaving me with mixed feelings.  On one hand – life is uneven, messy and essentially just a string of random events.  On the other – novels are edited objects, we expect an author to perform a certain amount of curating in order in creating a narrative.

Bonaria Urrai is a seamstress in a small village on the island of Sardinia.  She was once betrothed, but her fiance died in World War II.  She never married.  When the book opens she adopts Maria, the youngest daughter of a crass, indifferent woman.  Maria becomes a “soul-child”.  In the local form of open-adoption, her mother gives Maria to Bonaria Urrai to raise as her own child.  What she, Maria’s biological mother, gets in return is unclear – money, status, a daughter of means to support her in her own age or simply one less mouth to feed.  Regardless, there is no shame attached to anyone involved in the transaction.  In every way that matters Maria becomes Bonaria’s daughter.  And yet she retains her connection to her birth mother and sisters.

Bonaria Urrai also has a second life, one which she keeps a secret from Maria.   Accabadora derives from a Spanish word that means “to finish or complete” (from the book’s glossary).  Bonaria is an angel of death, helping her neighbors to die after receiving their and their family’s consent.  Like Maria’s adoption it is common knowledge.  Everyone in the village knows the role this woman plays, and revere her for it… except, inexplicably in my opinion, Maria.  How she finds out and reacts is the climactic moment of the story.

Maria leaves Sardinia and travels to Genoa to become the nanny to a rich family.  This amounts to not much more than a strange interlude with little connection to the overall narrative.  It ends when she loses her job and is (a bit too conveniently) summoned home to care for the dying Bonaria.

Most of the events I’ve described above are found on the back cover.  So I haven’t given much away.  Michela Murgia has written a plot- and character- driven novel, very different from what I’ve been reading lately.  She has no post-modern, experimental agenda.  Her “literary realism” approach make her characters’ motivations and choices important.  To sell the plot they must be defined and believable.  They were neither, and as a result I had a hard time buying in.

The prose is an entirely different matter.  Each paragraph is carefully composed.  For example, when Maria first begins to understand her adoptive mother’s secret Murgia allows the girl’s thought processes to unfold slowly while she prepares supper.

As she cut the onion into thin slices, Maria mulled obsessively over this difference, arranging the ingredients for supper with the same hypnotic slowness with which she was trying to order her thoughts.  Andría’s words had been as crazy as the light in his eyes as he was saying them, and they had made no sense to Maria, though when set against certain memories they began to take on some sort of meaning.  As she cut the tomato into pieces, she could see again the figure of the old dressmaker huddled by the fire that same morning, fully dressed and with her hair done as if she had just come home, or already knew that she would soon need to go out.  Maria had long ago stopped pondering the mysterious nocturnal expeditions of  her elderly adoptive mother, but now these suppressed memories came back to hit her like the elastic of a catapult, prompting the thought that Bonaria Urrai might have something serious to hide.  It was the first time such a thought had ever struck Maria, and she did not know how to cope with this suspicion which fitted so badly with the confidence she felt in the woman who had taken her to be her daughter.  Bonaria could not possibly have lied to her, because there are things you should do and things you should not do, she reminded herself as she dropped the rest of the finally chopped vegetables into the sizzling oil.  The wooden spoon evoked fragrances and memories among the browning onions and, as she slowly stirred them, Maria opened herself to both, and remembered an afternoon from many years before, only a few months after she had first become soul-daughter to Tzia Bonaria.

Accabadora is filled with wonderful and delicate moments like this; writing that creates a setting and context that make sense; scenes you can step into.  But these moments are hostage to a needlessly convoluted and (if I’m being completely honest) overly theatrical plot.   I type my criticisms with trepidation.  Accabadora won seven awards, including Italy’s Premio Campiello.   No small achievement for Michela Murgia’s freshman novel, one that makes it impossible to dismiss her as an author.  The fact remains there is a lot of promise in these first pages.  She bears watching.

Publisher:  Counterpoint Press, Berkeley (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 61902 050 4

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