Yuko Tsushima – Territory of Light [Book Review]

I’ve been listening to a lot of ambient Japanese music recently. If you read the likes of FACT magazine and a host of other vinyl-adoring alt-music sites, then you’d know the genre is enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, driven simultaneously by crate-digging fans and their record label partners in crime, as well as a sign-of-our-times debt to YouTube algorithms, serving the audio up to willing audiences on YouTube. If you like that, you’ll love this… Our new favourite album waits just around the corner.

Think babbling streams of water. The sound of rain in the early hours of twilight. The gentle hum of insects. Ageing synths that speak of soundscapes born halfway between Brian Eno and Steve Reich. This is music as bottled atmosphere – and it finds its partner in last year’s phenomenal Barbican exhibition on the architecture of the post-war Japanese House. You know the one – all wabi sabi, expanses of minimalist white walls and mountains of media ‘content’, collected together and consumed in the way only a true otaku can. We’re all one of them too, at heart. I bought the catalogue for the Barbican exhibition and swiftly inhaled its pages. Even they felt minimalist – as if breathing them in would suddenly bring order and rationale to my life. Dreams of idyllic Muji-furniatured apartments flashed before my eyes.

Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light is in many ways the literary equivalent of all this. The daughter of famed writer Osamu Dazai is getting something of a love-in from Penguin Books at the moment, with this volume in particular being treated to a beautifully bound special edition. It’s a sort of olive green – and for someone whose name, bedroom walls and curtains all encapsulate said colour, it resonated in a peaceful, kindred spirit sort of way, much like Midori Takada’s Through the Looking Glass reissue did for me last year.

Territory of Light tells the story of a single mother coming to terms with the difficulties of raising her daughter alone. Neither is an overly likeable character – the daughter is bratty and the mother lazy – but there’s an inherent charm in this. Real life is messy, full to bursting point with friction, so why should fiction be any different? But all around their fractured lives, beauty bursts from the seams – a very particular beauty of the every day. The play of light over water. The ceaseless sea of a urban Japanese skyline. A nostalgia for a late 70s idyll I never even knew. The front cover – distorted with an almost blinding dose of lens flare – captures it all so well.

Amazon informs me the book has over 30 reviews on there now – impressive, considering the Grandaddy of Japanese modern literature – Kawabata’s Snow Country – only has around 50. Maybe it’s the fact it’s a fresh translation, livening up the late 70s prose into something that feels remarkably current. Maybe it’s just that Tsushima is that good of a writer. Perhaps even the slim nature of the volume – never outstaying its welcome. Generally, as is so often the case with these things, it’s probably a combination of factors.

I loved this book – devouring it in a single sitting. I go in for the whole ‘aesthetic’ idea often when I describe to people what appeals to me so intensely about Japanese art (of all shapes and forms) – a cliched answer, I know, but Territory of Light just about nails it when it comes to my personal preferences. If a particular time, a particular shade of light, a certain smell of a sun-dappled Thursday afternoon could be put into words (and yet feel so much like a piece of artwork), then Tsushima’s novel manages it better than most.

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