Inheritance From Mother / Minae Mizumura; translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter.
New York: Other Press, c2016.
I have been reading this book slowly over the past month after discovering it at my library. I suppose that's suitable, as it was first published as a serial novel in Japan. So reading it bit by bit is kind of the way it was originally created to be read.
It's about two sisters, Mitsuki and Natsuki, who spend the first half of the book waiting for their imperious, narcissistic mother to die. The book fights against the stereotype of the devoted daughter caring for her aging saintly mother; Noriko is no saint, she is focused on her life and her desires, and has been for most of their lives. Mitsuki, in her 50's, working as a French instructor at a university, takes on most of the responsibilities for her mother's care. This is partly because she is close by, partly because she's childless, and partly due to childhood dynamics between the siblings.
Not only is she dealing with her mother's final illness, trying to do everything she can to make her mother's last days beautiful and comforting (while feeling exhausted and resentful), she is also coping with her husband's third affair with a younger woman. This time it's serious, and Mitsuki has to try to come to a decision about how to handle it.
Noriko dies at the end of Part One; Mitsuki then spends Part Two of the novel coming to terms with her past and her memories of her mother. She retreats to a small traditional hotel to think, and the second half of the book is full of other guests and their issues, illuminating aspects of contemporary Japanese life. The text veers off into chapters on other topics, including a disquisition on the place of serial novels in Japanese literary history, before coming back to Mitsuki and her decision to leave her husband and finally have a room of her own.
How she manages to do that is quite lovely and hopeful. I loved the ending, and the new life that Mitsuki feels arising. The description of her new and much less expensive living space is also lovely, even though it is revealed that it is only 62 sq. feet. Yikes!
Anyhow, despite my levity here, I thought this was a really fascinating read. While it is focusing in on issues important in modern Japan, it's also a great look at a family's history with characters that you will feel for. Both Mitsuki and Noriko evoke a sense of compassion in the reader, seeing where they are coming from and why. And the narrative pace, while slow, allows for easy reading in small doses, without losing the thread.
This book reminded me of Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin in its examination of familial relationships and the enmeshment of mothers and daughters, though this one is set in Korea.
It also recalled a more recent read, Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto, which explores the slow move toward life after the loss of a father and husband, made by a mother and daughter together. Moshi Moshi was also published as a serial novel in its first incarnation, and the daughter ends up travelling to France to study just as Mitsuki did in her youth.