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book review

Quiet, achingly complex portrait of a young mother amid divorce

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Fleeing a failing marriage, a young mother takes an apartment on the top floor of an old office building. An odd space, with windows on all sides, it will become her sanctuary over the next year, a space “filled with light at any hour of the day.”

Over the coming months, other benefits of the unusual housing will make themselves known: a vacant studio on the floor below offers the harried parent a private refuge, a “room empty but for faint dancing light.” A leaking water tower creates a temporary rooftop wading pool, much to her three-year-old daughter’s delight. Most of all, the space gives the woman distance from her husband and the ability to sort out all that has happened between them.

Written in a casual first-person voice, “Territory of Light,” a novel by the celebrated late Japanese author Yuko Tsushima, chronicles that process in a spare, yet complex and melancholy manner. Tsushima, who died in 2016 at 68 from lung cancer, was the daughter of famed novelist Osamu Dazai, who killed himself when his daughter was a toddler. She presents this short work as a reminiscence of a pivotal year in one woman’s life. Roughly chronological, from her moving into her new apartment until she moves out, one year later, it digresses to accommodate memories and associations, much as a retelling to a friend would, even as the seasons roll by.

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After opening with the discovery of the apartment, for example, the woman (who is never named) looks back, recalling the first few months of her estrangement from her husband, Fujino. It had been his decision to end the marriage, she explains. However, out of guilt or some sense of obligation, he had insisted on helping her look for her own place. January had turned to February as he took her to look at apartments she could not afford. Carried along by denial, she wonders, “[w]asn’t there still a chance I’d hear him laugh it all off as a joke tomorrow?”

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By March, however, she had been ready to move on and found her sunlit refuge. “He hadn’t been pleased at my deciding on a new place by myself,” she confesses. A hint of the kind of controlling relationship from which she has been freed. The light and the view — a park is visible from one window — epitomizes her renewal as spring blossoms.

The remaking of a life isn’t easy, however. Although the apartment is sunny, the protagonist’s time there is often dark. Her daughter regresses, wetting the bed regularly as she “cries and cries.” Daycare workers report that the little girl is biting other children and pulling their hair, and she may even have threatened a baby with a scissors. It’s a lot to deal with and, at times, the young mother confesses, “I wished I could forget I even had a child.”

The toddler isn’t the only one acting out. The mother tells of “downing whiskey before bed” to fall asleep, and describes a violent altercation with her husband, who finds her drunk. Her confusion and shame, anger and relief leave her exhausted. She oversleeps. And loses patience with her daughter. There are no easy answers. “Not a single clear emotion came with the tears,” she says.

Originally serialized in the Japanese literary monthly Gunzo in 1978 and 1979, this short novel has a timelessness to it. The denial and dislocation are portrayed in a straightforward fashion, and the translation, by Geraldine Harcourt, is spare and unsentimental. But the strictly demarcated gender roles of the period (as well as the cultural stigma surrounding divorce) are apparent both in the actions of others and in the protagonist’s acceptance of them. Men do what they will without repercussions, whether that means Fujino taking his daughter for an outing without any notice or not showing up for mediation. Constantly, the protagonist is warned about the dangers of separating permanently from her husband. “Nothing good will come of a divorce,” she is told. “Certainly nothing better than you have now.” While many of these attitudes may still be found 40 years later and one colleague, a nurse, does push back at Fujino’s cavalier attitude toward parenting, this sexism is largely unchallenged. Its blatant nature — and the fact that the young mother accepts it as normal — is jarring.

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Much more compelling are the internal conflicts that make up the bulk of this novel. There is a sense of inevitability as the year ends, and the woman takes a new apartment. Only walking distance from her light-filled sanctuary, the new space represents a new life, another understated step along the journey she has made.

TERRITORY OF LIGHT

By Yuko Tsushima, translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 192 pp., $24

Clea Simon’s latest novel is “A Spell of Murder.’’ She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com