Books | WORKS BY JAPANESE WOMEN

Touching on themes of loss and longing, Kaori Ekuni’s fiction retains a sense of lightness

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Award-winning, multitalented writer and translator Kaori Ekuni’s fiction somehow retains a distinctive quality of lightness, despite her frequent themes of loss and longing.

Twinkle Twinkle, by Kaori Ekuni, Translated by Emi Shimokawa.
176 pages
VERTICAL, Fiction.

Take “Twinkle Twinkle,” one of only two works currently translated into English. Alternating between two narrators, a husband and wife unfold the complications of their modern, arranged marriage of convenience.

For the wife, Shoko, a history of mental illness and alcohol addiction leaves her unmoored in strict Japanese society, and she sees Mutsuki, with his acceptance and patience, as a path toward healing. Mutsuki, a doctor in a long-term relationship with his soulmate, Kon, accepts marriage as a way of satisfying the demands of his parents and wider society.

Despite the potentially tragic love tangle, the novel brims with humor and wisdom. Offering no pat answers, Ekuni quietly explores definitions of love, normalcy and friendship as Shoko, Mutsuki and Kon tentatively create their own sense of family.

Ekuni’s second novel translated into English, “God’s Boat,” similarly tackles deep issues with a dual narrative that softens the sadness. Told between the switching viewpoints of a mother and child, the story touches on the aftermath of a powerful love. Yoko, whose passionate affair has left her abandoned in society as a single mother, and her daughter, 10-year-old Soko, struggle to stay afloat. Their lives are complicated by Yoko’s belief in love, forcing the small family to move frequently as she deliberately pursues a rootless existence while awaiting her lover’s return.

Despite its dark undertones investigating the madness of unrequited love, Ekuni nevertheless weaves hope within the everyday realities of mounting despair.

A prolific writer with more than 50 works published in Japanese since 1987, Ekuni’s recent novel, “Geckos, Frogs, and Butterflies,” won her the 2015 Tanizaki Prize, adding to the many awards that she already holds. A collaborator in television and film, a writer of essays, poetry and fairy tales in addition to her fiction, the talented Ekuni is also well-known as a translator of children’s literature into Japanese, and spent part of her education in both France and America.

That more of Ekuni’s work has not yet been translated into English is surprising, especially considering her global success, particularly in South Korea, where she was on the bestsellers list for one novel after another for nearly half a decade in the mid-2000s.

Ekuni is the daughter of haiku poet and essayist, Shigeru Ekuni, but she has forged her own success, drawing narratives of quiet hope and possibility out of the most dismal of situations.

This is the seventh installment of the series “Works by Japanese Women,” which explores notable female writers of Japan. Read more at jtimes.jp/womenwriters.