“Mother, when are you ever going to die?”
OTHER PRESS, Fiction.
The question is shocking indeed. But Mitsuki Hirayama, a teacher and translator of French and the heroine of Minae Mizumura’s new novel, “Inheritance from Mother,” dreams of the day when she can finally say, “Today, mother died.” Clearly, she knows her Albert Camus.
First serialized in a Japanese newspaper, this family drama shows the dark side of longevity: the exhausting, often protracted, care for an infirm parent who clings stubbornly to life instead of dying “the way they were supposed to,” as Mizumura puts it in her book.
Mitsuki is handed lemons galore. Childless and fretful, she has discovered that her husband Tetsuo, an idle academic whom she met in Paris, is having yet another affair. Things get worse: With little help from her older sister, Mitsuki has to care for their querulous mother, Noriko, first in a nursing home, then in a hospital. The ordeal evokes old memories and brings past resentments to a boil.
A love child of a former geisha, Noriko spent a self-absorbed life, “chasing nameless dreams” with a ceaseless hunger. Her story, told with intimate period authenticity, is a mirror of Japan in the 1950s. For the burgeoning middle class of that time, many of the trappings of conspicuous wealth came from the West. For Noriko, this meant American movies; for the girls, piano lessons and study in Europe.
But amid the suburban race for status the family falls prey to a malaise that Mizumura blames equally on the West: the discontent that stems from fretting over things you want but don’t have. In an obvious nod, Mitsuki starts reading “Madame Bovary” — the French classic about a wife whose appetite for shopping and love exceeds her means. Likewise, as Noriko clings to existence on her deathbed, she insists on a bourgeois lifestyle. “Where’s the harm if I pamper myself a little?” she asks while gobbling sashimi and refusing to face her economic reality.
The first half of the book, with its focus on sickness, can get mired in realism. By the time Noriko at last makes her departure, the reader is likely to share a sense of relief with Mitsuki. But throughout the 66 chapters Mizumura keeps the pages turning in a style that is smooth and engaging. In one passage she muses on a nation of women looking death in the face: “Japanese women lived longer every year, lingering like specters. Mitsuki pictured women in cities and rural areas across Japan, their faces shadowed with fatigue, longing in secret for their mother’s death. Such women wanted freedom not just from their mother, but also from the trauma of seeing the cruelty of old age up close.”
The novel shifts in its second half, which feels more generously plotted and imagined. After her mother’s death, Mitsuki leaves Tokyo for Hakone, checking in at a lakeside resort. The reader is introduced to new cast of characters, including the stylish but elderly Kaoru and her handsome young male companion. As Mitsuki ponders her future and a possible divorce from Tetsuo, Kaoru shares a note from a psychic saying that a hotel guest may soon commit suicide.
Originally composed in weekly installments, the book is an homage to the Japanese tradition of serialized novels. Works by writers like Natsume Soseki and Junichiro Tanizaki were once published first in newspapers, which were the sole exposure that many ordinary people had to literature. Mizumura employs classic themes of newspaper novels — infidelity, sibling rivalry and the choice between love and money — that remain popular with the genre audience demographic: middle-class women between 40 and 80.
It can feel at times as though Mitsuki complains excessively, seeing herself as a victim. Still, in Japan, which ranks second in the world in life expectancy, “Inheritance From Mother” has appeal for many readers who are caring for aging parents. Judging from the letters of gratitude Mizumura says she has received, this is an important book that addresses a social taboo head-on, helping people to face and perhaps overcome the stigmas associated with their difficulties.
“The myth of the selfless mother has a strong grip on Japanese heartstrings,” Mizumura wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times. “Reinforcing this myth is the idea — a vestige of Japan’s Confucian tradition — that to honor one’s mother is a virtue and that to strive to extend her life by even one day is a solemn duty.”
Educated in the U.S. but now living in Tokyo, the author brings a forgiving honesty to these sugar-coated notions of loyalty, which can keep women (as well as men) depleted and homebound for years. To add verite, she even used elements of her own mother’s death — right down to actual pieces of dialogue — to write in the Japanese style of an autobiographical “I-novel.”
The book ends in spring, when Mitsuki discovers she has agency in her life. Might this be ground on which to build a sequel? A middle-aged Japanese woman, setting out on her own with her mother’s inheritance? Add some Jane Austen wit, and we just might have a classic.