My first selection for the Short Story Reading Challenge was The Laws of Evening, by Mary Yukari Waters. Last year I went a little crazy at a Barnes & Noble online sale, and this was one of the books I picked up. Since then, it's been hanging around the house, moving from pile to pile. I realized I could use the challenge to force myself to read it. Force myself. Poor choice of words on my part, because this book is so beautifully done, all I can think now is, what took me so long?
I struggle to review short story collections. In a way, I feel as though I've been tasked with describing someone else's photo album. It's as though, when I'm reading, the author and I have the album spread across our laps, and as I turn the pages, she explains to me the context of each photo, its back story and its meaning for her. How then do I describe this to you in words, with no pictures of my own to show, and you with no pages to turn? I must try, so I consider moving through the book, story by story, but short summaries seem like so many advertisements, literary classified ads.
These stories, set in Japan and China, deal as much with the collective conscious (and conscience) of a nation during and after World War II as with the lives of the men and women who inhabit them. The protagonists are mostly women, and mostly elderly, looking back on lives of considerable losses, through war and illness and change. No historical account I have read about Japan after WWII has presented such a clear picture of a nation walking the fine line between its ancient culture and a modern, more Westernized way of life.
As an American reading these stories, I'm reminded again and again that I do not know what it is like to live in a country conquered and then occupied by its conquerors, no matter how short the period of occupation might be. What strikes me is that the occupation is not only physically invasive, but mentally so as well. It is difficult to believe that regeneration after such devastating loss could feel unwelcome, that somehow the emptiness is more fulfilling than the thing replacing the loss.
Waters' characters face not only the loss of spouses and children and parents, but of whole villages. People are stripped of their family history, their culture. Waters shows this not through a physical picture of war-torn cities, not through a list of items lost in bombings, but through the smallest details of life. In one story, "Since My House Burned Down," an elderly Japanese woman watches her daughter-in-law teach her daughter to eat with a knife and fork: "What a barbaric way to eat, I thought. Wielding iron spears and knives right at the table, stabbing and slicing--chores that should be performed in the privacy of a kitchen, leaving diners' energies free for thoughts of a higher order. At that moment a strange foreboding rose up in my belly: a sense that my world, indeed my entire understanding of it, was on the threshold of great change."
In another story, "Kami," an elderly woman, Hanae, follows advice she hears on the radio in her effort to stay healthy and vigorous in old age. She lost her husband in the war, and then married a man she did not love. "[In] the period after her second husband's funeral, Mitsu's condolences had brought home the truth: despite anything else fate might still hold in store, the basic outcome of Hanae's life was complete. Mitsu's formal dress and prostration had impressed this onto Hanae's mind like a huge red stamp on a shipping crate: Unfortunate Life. Dashed Hopes." But each night she lulls herself to sleep by imagining her body repairing and strengthening itself, her mind "[resolving] emotion and memory into increasingly healthy patterns; each cell knowing, without her intervention, exactly what to do." Her resilience, however small, tells the story of a nation. Hopes are not dashed, and life continues. In another story, "Circling the Hondo," (a hondo is a hall of worship in a Buddhist temple) a character says, "'The ancient sages said we all have in us some larger consciousness that keeps growing, widening, with time. And they said: That is all that matters. Our bodies must evolve, and our minds must evolve, in order to accommodate it."
This is as true for lives as it is for relationships in Waters' stories, although where love and death are concerned, adaptation can be painful. My favorite story in the collection is "Rationing," which appeared in the Best American Short Stories 2003, where I first encountered it. I read that collection every year, and in that edition "Rationing" is the first story. It might not be fair, but each year I tend to make a snap judgment based on that first story, and I remember thinking the collection would be particularly good that year. I was surprised when I saw it here again, because I tend to gobble up singular stories like vending machine snacks, enjoying them immensely at the time and forgetting them later. It felt lucky, finding this story again, about a father and son, their relationship over time, the complication of generations and cultures clashing. At the beginning of the story, Saburo is a teenager, his father a professor of astronomy at a local university. As he ages, Saburo's father loses his sight, and his son cares for him, taking him on weekly outings, listening to his lectures about the cosmos. The plot is less than original, but it's so beautifully and touchingly told through Waters' graceful prose, it brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.
For my anniversary this year, I received an iron vase adorned with cherry blossoms. The vase, reflecting the Japanese tradition of ikebana, the art of flower arranging, has three sides representing heaven, man, and earth. Traditionally, these arrangements do not involve floral bouquets as they do in Western culture, but instead are an arrangement of branches with carefully placed floral elements. To me, Waters' stories reflect this same tender care, arranging the bare bones of a life and then carefully placing those events, like flowers, that make them magnificent to behold.
Not only would I recommend that you read this, but I would love to pass on a copy. If you're interested, please leave your name in the comments. I'll keep this "open" until Wednesday, February 6, and then I'll draw a winner.
*image from amazon.com