Sunday, June 24, 2007

'Woman on the Other Shore' by Mitsuyo Kakuta

ISBN: 4770030436
Format: Hardcover, 272pp
Publisher: Kodansha International

Woman on the Other Shore won the Naoki Prize in 2005, Japan’s most prestigious literary award for popular fiction. Mitsuyo Kakuta is the author of over a dozen books and the recipient of several literary awards including the Noma Literary Prize for New Writers and the Fujin Koron Literary Prize. Born in Yokohama in 1967 she began her writing career while still a student at Wasedo University. Besides her works of fiction she writes essays about rock music, manga, and contributes to popular magazines.

Woman on the Other Shore, translated from the Japanese by Wayne P. Lammers, was also specially selected for the Japanese Literature Publishing Project or the JLPP. Launched in 2002, the JLPP is part of the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan efforts to promote the translation and publication of Japanese contemporary fiction. At the moment they are targeting four foreign languages, including English, French, German, and Russian.

In Woman on the Other Shore we are introduced to Sayoko, who is a 35 year-old housewife with a three-year-old daughter. Her husband is disinterested, a vague figure in the background for most of the story and her grumpy mother-in-law always has a sharp word for Sayoko concerning her child rearing or cooking. Sayoko is stuck in this mold and keeps asking herself ‘When am I ever going to stop being the same old me?’

When Sayoko finally decides to make a change, she faces the disapproval of her husband and mother-in-law, not to mention her daughter’s unhappiness. But Sayoko forges ahead and finds herself a job with a small travel/house cleaning company run by Aoi, an intrepid business woman.

Aoi is 35 as well but without the family and reasonability that Sayoko has in her life. At first it seems that these two very different women have nothing in common. As the story slowly unfolds and Aoi’s past is revealed, however, piece by piece you realize how similar these two really are. Both have unhappy memories of school, but Aoi’s past is especially painful and even as adults they are still vulnerable and insecure.

While the story moves forward with the friendship of Sayoko and Aoi, it also looks back at the teenage friendship that shaped Aoi. Bullied in school Aoi transfers schools and towns in the hope of finding some relief. In her new school she meets Nanako, a girl who floats between the ridged cliques, and soon befriends Aoi.

These two story lines are brought together in the final chapter of the novel. Who Sayoko is has changed; she is stronger and more her own person than she was before. We understand Aoi better, who she is behind the mask she holds up to the world. Their friendship is cemented with simple gestures as both women come to fully understand and accept each other.

What boundaries do you have in your life? When do you dare to cross them? In Woman on the Other Shore these two characters, two very real women, cross a boundary to discover they are not alone; there might be rivers dividing us but there are bridges linking us as well. This is a poignant and beautifully written novel, a novel that is timeless in many ways, a classic in our modern world.

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