I was so impressed with Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, a gem of a book I read in 2018, that this brand new release by NYRB Classics was something I was eagerly anticipating. The wait was worth it, I loved Woman Running in the Mountains so much.
Somewhere in the latter half of Woman Running in the Mountains, our protagonist Takiko Okada is haunted by a vision – she is on the top of the mountain slope, at its feet the world stretches away endlessly. It’s a world composed of people, land and houses, but Takiko does not belong there, although she yearns to be a part of it. She is mesmerized by the expanse of this glittering world where “rivers trace silver lines” and the “drifting ice appears and expands into a world of white”, and starts running down the mountain slopes for that one thing she really wants but which will forever remain elusive.
It’s a beautiful scene that captures the essence of Takiko’s emotions and state of mind; that she is alone in a world that does not always accept her or cares enough to understand her circumstances – embarking on a path less trodden that in one fell swoop pushes her to the fringes of society.
The world below is clearly visible from the mountain slope, stretching away beyond the rustling vine leaves. All too clearly and minutely visible. The world where people live. Countless grains of light glitter as if every surface had been sprinkled with quartz dust. A world that appears even more distant than the blue peaks floating on the skyline but it is this world that she wants more than anything to watch, when she could look away and spare herself this slowly welling sadness. When she needn’t know how alone she is.
The girl on the mountainside can’t take her eyes off the glittering world below, although she is about to burst into tears. If only she could leave the mountains. But there’s no place for her away from these slopes, no other place where she is herself. Whenever the tears threaten to brim over, the barefoot girl breaks into a run…
Woman Running in the Mountains, then, is a stunning, immersive novel of single motherhood, loneliness and alienation; a novel tinged with beauty and melancholia, with darkness and light, where haunting landscapes of the natural world offer pockets of relief from the harsh reality of a brutal family life.
The book opens with a scene of Takiko, a young, 21-year old woman, at home in her bed grappling with an intense pain in her belly. She immediately knows that she’s in labour and gets ready to make the arduous journey to the municipal hospital where she has reserved a place. Takiko is hell bent on going there by herself, trudging alone in the scorching hot midsummer sun, in pain but with a will of steel, determined not to let her mother accompany her. Once comfortably settled in the hospital, she gives birth to a healthy baby boy (called Akira). That’s the end of the first chapter, and the subsequent chapters move back and forth, dwelling on the daily challenges of new motherhood that Takiko must embrace, while at the same time giving a glimpse into her immediate past – her dismal family circumstances, the brief paltry affair that results in her pregnancy and the venom and abuse her parents subject her to when she decides to keep the baby.
Takiko’s family life is horrendous. Disabled by an accident, Takiko’s father is an embittered man, choosing to drown his sorrows in heavy drinking. Unemployed and a raging alcoholic, the father unleashes all his frustrations on Takiko which typically descends into horrific physical abuse. It only worsens when he becomes aware of Takiko’s pregnancy. The parents, themselves, have a strained relationship, having separated once, only to get back together again. With the father unwilling to contribute to the family income, the bulk of this burden falls on the mother who is not always in the pink of health. Takiko’s relationship with her mother is much more complex. In Japanese society, an illegitimate child is a disgrace, and the mother is horrified by Takiko’s predicament, fearing the social stigma that will befall them. Persistently and vehemently, she urges Takiko to go in for an abortion, but Takiko resists.
The details of the affair are as brief as the affair itself, the man being someone she occasionally had to interact with in her job. Takiko misses the initial signs of pregnancy, but the dawning realization that she is going to bring a baby into the world does not particularly terrify her. In some way, she is in denial – she can’t understand her situation other than what it is, that she is pregnant, but the wider implications of it (the circumstances of her pregnancy and the pitfalls of single motherhood) escape her. She remains ambivalent about abortion until it is too late, when it is clear now that the baby must be born. The mother also resigns to the fact that abortion is no longer an option on the table. She offers to help Takiko during the time of her delivery, but Takiko, unsurprisingly, refuses…accusing her mother of being a hypocrite. However, the mother does visit Takiko at the hospital daily, also coming to pick her up on the day she’s discharged.
The grimness of her family life only heightens her resolve to chart her own path, to break away from her parents, find her own place and begin life anew with her baby. But that’s easier said than done, Takiko quickly realizes. Motherhood forcibly alters the way Takiko sees the world. Before the pregnancy, Takiko was like any other student with a vibrant social life and a slew of boyfriends, indifferent towards her career, although she does manage to secure a job. But the birth of Akira and her role now as a single mother changes all that.
The next few chapters are an absorbing depiction of the daily grind of motherhood – finding a suitable day care center for Akira while Takiko hunts for a job (she is compelled to accept that she must find work first before she can even consider buying a house). She treads a fine line; struggling to navigate the requirements of the jobs she does manage to secure, overwhelmed by the pressure to stick to timelines and deadlines, not to mention, taking care of Akira once home.
It’s only when she comes across Misawa Gardens later does Takiko find a job of her calling, and along with it a sort of an awakening, the awareness of deep new feelings and a chance for love.
Single motherhood and its myriad challenges is one of the biggest themes in both Woman Running in the Mountains and Territory of Light; a topic obviously close to Tsushima’s heart given that she was also a single mother. What’s interesting though is how this theme evolves in different ways in both novels. In Territory of Light, the protagonist is divorced, and she struggles to balance the demands of motherhood (she has a young daughter) with the desire to have a life of her own. The scenario is different in Woman Running in the Mountains, where the responsibility of single parenting falls on Takiko simply because she gives birth to a child without marrying. For Takiko her life with Akira, despite the slew of hurdles associated with early motherhood, is akin to an oasis in a barren desert.
The book explores the theme of a woman’s quest for freedom, to carve out an independent life for herself. By keeping her baby, Takiko chooses to forge her own path and make her own decisions; in many ways, defying traditional, conservative Japanese norms, at a time when single motherhood let alone an illegitimate child were unheard of. An element of control also imposed by society does not deter her. This is particularly exemplified by her mother who accuses Takiko of being casual and careless as a mother when that is hardly the case; Takiko is well aware of the practical matters of motherhood and rises to the challenge despite various setbacks.
Woman Running in the Mountains is also a beautiful meditation on loneliness and alienation and how our minds find unique ways to cope. Crippling poverty, the weight of motherhood and a toxic family environment heighten Takiko’s sense of alienation. On the one hand, there’s nothing much to distinguish her experiences of motherhood from those of countless women in the same boat. It’s hardly a big deal, and yet Takiko is always made aware of the fact that as far as she is concerned it is a big deal. Other women have husbands and the children are a product of marriage. Takiko is a single mother and her son is born out of wedlock; both factors unthinkable in Japan at the time.
Just like the superb Territory of Light, Woman Running in the Mountains pulsates with flashes of intense light; a prominent feature that floods Takiko’s soul, offering the promise of respite and hope, when all areas of her life are shrouded in darkness. It’s a book bursting with stunning visions that evoke sensations of joy and wonder in Takiko; visions that sustain her when all else seems bleak. These dreams and visions morph into various forms – vast expanses of white, men hurtling on sleds, the glittering frozen sea and Takiko herself always running; the latter particularly being a symbol of freedom rather than escape.
The village in the valley below isn’t all she can see. Beyond the far ridge lies a plain where she can trace a river, and then the sea, like a great liquid amethyst. The coastline stretches away to the north, sometimes straight, then curving, then rugged, until finally the sea ices over and glitters whitely. The girl likes that glittering whiteness best of all. Although it is the farthest thing she can see from the mountain, she feels drawn to the frozen sea. The swift figures of men on dog sleds haven’t escaped her notice either. The merest black dots, they glide freely through the white expanse. An apparently endless sea of ice.
Throughout the book, Takiko finds solace in the beauty of the natural world around her as well as the hallucinatory landscapes fuelled by her imagination. In a bid for relief from the horrible environment back home, especially during her pregnancy, Takiko’s walks to the boathouse take her to the edge of the water where “receiving that dazzling sparkle gave her a sense that something was rapidly melting”, during her hospital stay, the poplar tree with its finely burnished leaves and “the expanse of solid blue behind it made her feel momentarily cool whenever she looked out” amid the clamour and swirl of the ward. At the Misawa Gardens, the greenhouse with “its seething, swirling mass of every shade of green” and the calm and peace of the place enthralls her.
Takiko never resents being a mother and loves Akira wholeheartedly even when motherhood often frustrates her. And yet, on her chosen path that she must traverse alone, she does savour moments of kinship and contentment. For instance, she finds comfort in the hustle and bustle of the maternity ward and the camaraderie between new mothers, as well as during her daily trips to Midori Nursery to drop off and pick up Akira.
Woman Running in the Mountains radiates with the wonder of new experiences. For Takiko, motherhood is of course the biggest life altering experience ever, but she also discovers the beauty and sadness of falling in love, and the dawning realization that the life of a parent can come at a price – there’s no room for anything else. Takiko is also struck by facets of fatherhood previously alien to her… when she meets some young fathers at the Midori nursery and also later in her conversations with Kambayashi. These are particularly poignant given the disastrous men that have so far surrounded her – a violent father and the string of desultory relationships with men prior to parenthood.
Woman Running in the Mountains, then, is a bracing, beautiful novel where Tsushima’s lyrical, limpid prose drenched in touches of piercing wisdom coupled with its range of vivid, haunting, dreamlike imagery makes it such a pleasure to read. The book sizzles with dazzling light, displaying a palette of emotions from the claustrophobia of an abusive family, to the joys and burdens of early motherhood, to the lingering, aching sadness in the last couple of chapters…and despite it all, to end with a glimmer of hope. Finally, it is a testament to the indomitable spirit of a woman, who despite all odds survives on her own terms and finds some modicum of peace in the process.