[New York Review of Books; 2022]

Tr. from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt

Few people associate extended hospital stays with calm, comfort and pleasure. But the hospital is a respite for Takiko, the young single mother at the heart of Woman Running in the Mountains, the 1980 Yuko Tsushima novel translated by Geraldine Harcourt from Japanese and recently reissued in English. The novel opens with Takiko in labor and trekking alone across Tokyo to the maternity ward. There, she delivers a healthy son and names him Akira. Of her six days in the hospital, which include pushing a human out of her body, Takiko thinks “these five days had been the most restful of her life.”

A year later, in the novel’s last chapter, Takiko returns to the hospital for Akira to undergo hernia surgery. Again, she experiences a sense of tranquility through what many would consider one of life’s most harrowing situations:

“Takiko felt herself at rest for the first time since she’d gone home from the hospital with newborn Akira. She could only be thankful she had another four whole days alone with him, idle time with nothing to do but look after him.”

What kind of life must a woman lead to find so much rest in the hospital, first while literally in labor, later engaged in the round-the-clock care of an ailing baby? For whom does the hospital count as “idle”?

Outside the hospital walls, Takiko’s daily routine is punishing. At 21, she lives with her working-class family in the outskirts of Tokyo. Her disabled father is unemployed and physically abusive when drunk; her harried mother can’t earn quite enough to support the family with her dressmaking work. Takiko has plenty to run away from, and she desperately craves escape. Her central ambition is to rent an apartment for herself and Akira, far from her father’s violence and her mother’s disapproval. But Takiko can barely afford Akira’s daycare on the grinding, low wage work she manages to pick up. Housing would be preposterous. Takiko runs and runs with nowhere to go. The hospital is the only place where she is permitted — even required — to stay still.

When Yuko Tsushima’s 1979 Territory of Light was reissued in English in 2019, international critics noted the novel’s place in the canon of confessional Japanese “I-novels.” They compared Tsushima’s work to the twenty-teens flourishing of autofiction by Jenny Offill, Rachel Cusk, Karl Knausgaard, and many others. Like Woman Running in the Mountains, Territory of Light follows one year of difficult single motherhood, though in Territory the child is a two-year-old girl. Because Tsushima was divorced, like the Territory protagonist, it was easy to assume a connection between Tsushima’s biography and fiction. The 42-year-old novel became of the moment.

The details of Woman Running in the Mountains are tweaked enough to discourage direct comparisons to Tsushima’s life. No essay on Tsushima can avoid noting that she was the daughter of the famous novelist Osamu Dazai, who died by suicide when Tsushima was just a year old. Her family name was known; she attended college; she began publishing fiction and attracting accolades by age 24. Takiko, meanwhile, is anonymous. Her family lives in an obscure neighborhood. Her parents work small jobs. She has no university education and seeks employment in service and retail. Takiko is not divorced — worse, from the perspective of 1970s Japanese society: she has a child out of wedlock. Given these differences, it seems natural that Tsushima chose to switch from the intimate first person in Territory of Light to the more analytical third person in Woman Running in the Mountains.

The novel’s greatest strength and weakness emerge from the distance Tsushima creates by splitting narrator from protagonist. Takiko is as flawed as the rest of us: she makes strange, sometimes inadvisable decisions about drinking, sexual partners, and workplace romance. The third person narrator presents her actions clinically, observationally, and without judgment. The reader is not allowed to feel morally superior to Takiko or to assume they would behave differently in her constricted, suffocating circumstances. Tsushima’s narrative restraint is often refreshing. Her prose is at once spare and lush. She doesn’t explain why Takiko kisses an attractive coworker soon after claiming (in interior monologue) that she could never think of him romantically. Yet Tsushima never fails to describe the quality, slant, and brilliance of light illuminating a scene. From the hospital window, for example, Takiko’s eyes keep “straying to the expanse of sky” which “wasn’t a flat plane: its white was thicker in places, while in others there were glimpses of hazy blue. These shades changed subtly as she watched.” If a plant or tree makes an appearance in Takiko’s field of vision, Tsushima counts its leaves. Her emphasis on atmosphere over psychological realism makes Woman Running in the Mountains go down easy: it is beautiful even when awful things are happening.

But without access to Takiko’s thought process, she sometimes seems animal-like, functioning entirely by instinct. The reader knows that Takiko ignores her mother’s repeated urging to get an abortion, for example. But the narrator never explains why. Takiko doesn’t exactly want the baby, nor does she oppose abortion categorically. She seems to continue with the pregnancy because it is the path of least resistance. I wanted a little more access to Takiko’s interiority. Because of the class difference between the author and character, I sometimes grew suspicious that Tsushima obscured Takiko’s reasoning because she, Tsushima, could not really understand a woman like Takiko. But maybe the psychological silence is more about age than class. Takiko is barely an adult in the year this novel covers. Her frontal lobe is not fully formed; her muddled reasoning may be part of the point.

To align this vintage novel with contemporary concerns, I wouldn’t look to Lerner and Heti and the rest of the autofiction masters who intellectualize their anxiety from positions of extraordinary stability. Instead, I would group Woman Running with a slew of recent novels about precarity: precarious jobs, precarious living situations, precarious childcare arrangements. In Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind, a woman experiences a miscarriage while bumbling through temporary, underpaid academic work. In Lynn Steger Strong’s Want, a young mother works several jobs while her family files for bankruptcy. In Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms, a narrator around Takiko’s age has a similar dream — a fantasy, really — of affording an apartment of her own. Like Takiko, the narrator of Three Rooms works to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion. Yet she comes nowhere close to earning enough money to cover rent on a one-bedroom. All the protagonists of these novels work full-time; none of them can support themselves, never mind their families.

The scarcity and anxiety of Tsushima’s 1980 novel may resemble 2022. But Woman Running in the Mountains is not exactly prescient. It doesn’t predict a housing crisis or the astronomical cost of childcare in developed countries in the 21st century. Instead, Takiko reminds readers that the impediments facing of a single, working-class mother in a capitalist society are hardly new. 20th century Japanese society didn’t support women like Takiko’s any better or worse than 21st-century American society would (although Takiko sends four-month-old Akira to a free public daycare, which American parents cannot do).

The point is not that today’s precariat should quiet down because life has always been hard and current conditions are not world-historical. It is the opposite: reading Woman Running in the Mountains is a reminder that capitalist societies still need repair. It is a reminder that childcare still consumes the better part of a hard-earned paycheck, that mothers still face humiliating discrimination in the workplace, that hospital fees can drag a person into devastating debt. The refuge that Takiko finds in the maternity ward and the paediatric unit comes at a terribly high price. Reading Tsushima today links the struggle of a young Tokyo mother with the hell that many parents (and others) have experienced as the pandemic has revealed the flimsiness of our social supports. In the face of exhaustion, despair, and disgust, we are still running in the mountains.

Stephanie Bernhard writes essays and fiction. She is an assistant professor of English at Salisbury University.

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