Thursday, October 25, 2012

Book Thoughts - The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi
published 1957
203 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

The beautiful, immature girl whom she took home to her husband was a maid only in name. Tomo's real mission had been to find him a mistress. Nor did her secret humiliation end there. The web that his insatiable lust spun about him soon trapped another young woman, and another ... and the relationships between the women thus caught were to form, over the years, a subtle, shifting pattern in which they all played a part. There was Suga, the innocent, introspective girl from a respectable but impoverished family; the outgoing, cheerful, almost boyish Yumi; the flirtatious, seductive Miya, who soon found her father-in-law more dependable as a man than his brutish son.... And at the center, rejected yet dominating them all, the near tragic figure of the wife Tomo, whose passionate heart was always, until that final day, held in check by an old-fashioned code.

In a series of colorful, unforgettable scenes, Enchi brilliantly handles the human interplay within the ill-fated Shirakawa family. Japan's leading woman novelist and a member of the prestigious Art Academy, she combines a graceful, evocative style that consciously echoes the Tale of Genji with keen insight and an impressive ability to develop her characters over a long period of time. Her work is rooted deep in the female psychology, and it is her women above all-so clearly differentiated yet all so utterly feminine-who live in the memory. With The Waiting Years, a new and important literary figure makes her debut in the Western world.

My thoughts:

First Impression - 10/19/12

This is a quiet, subtle novel about a subject I know nearly nothing about - the Japanese concubine culture of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Obviously, the idea of being sent by my husband to pick out his mistress is repellent - but delving into the mindset that causes a woman to agree to such a mission is fascinating. It's difficult to believe that this story can end any way but badly for all involved - Tomo, who has to silently bear her husband's betrayals or risk losing everying; Suga, whose innocence can't disguise the fact that she was literally bought and sold; Tomo's daughter, Etsuko, growing up in a household filled with bitterness. 

So far, the novel has been quite internal - Tomo's thoughts and emotions, with little in the way of forward momentum or dialogue. I think it seems to be more a character study of several women throughout a period of many years.

"As she watched Suga, with the cool skin that harbored an inner light like newly fallen snow and the dewy eyes that were always wide open yet had a misleadingly troubled look, Tomo would experience two unbidden and conflicting emotions: boundless pity as for a charming animal that was about to be led to the slaughter, and fixed hatred at the thought that eventually this innocent girl might turn into a devil that would devour her husband and sweep unchecked through the whole house." (p. 40).

Sometimes novels in translation prove a challenge to read, but this flows quite nicely. "Enjoying" seems the wrong word to use, because it's such a somber novel, but so far it has been fascinating.

Second Thoughts - 10/23/12

I'm finding that it is hard to get myself excited to sit down and read this novel - not because of a flaw in the novel itself, but because of the heaviness it makes me feel each time I open the cover. This is the definition of a woman being trapped - even when the situation seems like it isn't "that bad", these women have no choices, no freedom, no possibility of a future. Even a gilded cage is still a cage, I suppose, and watching each women's dreams and hopes slip away is a sorrowful thing.

Even more, watching each woman's personality change is striking. They are the only ones who can truly understand what living this type of life entails, and yet the bitterness and resentment that develops between them is inevitable. How can you not grow to hate the woman who takes your husband away from you?

"Each time she had such thoughts Suga felt guilty despite herself and strove to brush aside the cobwebs gathering about her heart. It was as though a devil had taken residence within her. At the same time, she felt quite clearly that she never would have been a devil had she not been trapped in her present surroundings.
        Inside the self that achieved expression neither in action nor in words, that seemed so ineffectual, the feelings that could find no relief lay dark, cold, and silent, like snow settles by night." (p. 121-122)

Last Word - 10/25/12

It's an interesting experience to read a novel that is so powerful, and yet makes me feel so sad. I will certainly not forget the characters I've met in these pages, and yet it isn't a novel I can recommend to everyone. It's very internal, and the I can imagine some modern readers being frustrated with Tomo's refusal to speak out or speak up for herself. In researching about this period of Japanese history, I've learned a bit about the "wise mother, good wife" role foisted upon women, and Enchi is clearly expressing her distaste for this institutionalized silencing of Japanese women.

I couldn't help but think of all the blogging challenges this novel would be a good selection for - I don't even know if these all still exist, but the Japanese Literature Challenge; the Woman Unbound challenge;  the Reading Around the World Challenge; the Decades Challenge; this novel would really fit well into any of these, and would certainly be an eye-opening read for the reader willing to have a little patience and persist to the end.

Finished: 10/24/12
Source: loan from a friend
MPAA Rating: PG for adult situations referenced but never explicit
My rating: 8/10


Aarti said...

This is a really brilliant review. I like the way you have now of laying out your thoughts throughout your read so we can see how your reaction changes over time. Not sure if I will read this one, but you might be interested in my current read- Two Years in the Forbidden City. Memoirs written by a lady of waiting to the Chinese empress at the end of the Victorian era.

Amy said...

This sounds like one I'd definitely like to read. And i echo Aarti's thoughts on the format, it's great!