Sunday, July 31, 2011

Short Story: 'White Knife'

White Knife

When the merchant Master Rai came to the physician Master Ema’s house at the upper end of the village where the stream bubbled out of the mountains in a pale torrent, the snow was melting from the high slopes and the buds on the trees were just beginning to unfurl into tender pale young leaves. The physician’s house was set just aside from the stream, low and thatched, separated by a wide garden already bursting with early flowers and spices from the narrow but hard-packed road that went up from the village into the mountains’ hulking palisades. Master Rai came to the garden gate and swung it open with a boorish bang and went up to the front door, which went into the house by way of the apothecary, a perpetually dim room now lit through the slots under the eaves and at nighttime by water-lanterns and candles.
            The north wall of the apothecary was covered for the first six feet up, ending just about a handsbreadth beneath the slot at the bottom of the sloping ceiling, with row upon row on shelf upon shelf of small jars, some of native clay, some of Chinese porcelain or Dutch glass, bearing little paper labels on which Master Ema or his daughter had written the names of almost every manner of drug and medicinal herb in their small, spidery, nearly identical hands. On the south wall were anatomical charts from China and long lists and tables describing the properties of the ingredients on the north wall. In the middle of the room was a large low table; Master Ema was crouched over this table now, his thin back quivering in time with the work that his hands were doing. In his left hand was a lump of what looked like ginger, probably stored without air or moisture in one of the Dutch jars for the gods only knew how long; in his right hand was a short sharp knife that gleamed in the light from below the eaves. Every few seconds the right hand would come down on the left, cutting off another tiny chunk of ginger, which Master Ema would then almost mechanically pick up and cast into a small bowl.
            Master Ema was tall, over five and a half feet, and thin as a boating pole. His face was somewhat pinched, his nose long between the Chinese lenses in his oddly light eyes. Probably some of the blood of the furthest North ran through his veins. It took him well over a minute to notice Master Rai and several seconds beyond to follow through on his surprised grunt and look up from his cutting. By that point all but a little dirt-crusted butt of the ginger had been chopped up and put into the bowl.
            ‘Rai-san,’ Master Ema said. ‘I didn’t see you come in.’ He smiled. His smile was very thin and ironic and did not show even a hint of teeth. It was the smile of a man whose smile had to reassure without  being crass or accept without being unnerving. ‘What brings you here?’

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book: Shizuko's Daughter by Kyoko Mori

This is going to be a somewhat terse review, since I've had a long month, a long week, a long day, and am tired and using my godfather's computer because mine is in for repairs to the motherboard.

Back in the 1980s, Kyoko Mori, a Japanese immigrant working through college and grad school in the United States wrote various short stories, in English but with a very distinctly Japanese sensibility, about a girl called Okuda Yuki whose mother Shizuko commits suicide when she is twelve years old. There were different points of view in the different stories, with mostly 'Yuki chapters' but also some 'Hanae chapters' (Yuki's stepmother) and 'Masa chapters' (Yuki's grandmother). As time wore on the stories took on the character of an overall arc, which in the early nineties Mori welded into a novel that she titled Shizuko's Daughter, which follows Yuki's path through hatred and resentment of her father and stepmother to acceptance of her position in a family.

There's a lot to love about how Shizuko's Daughter pans out, such as the way it manages to be fiercely tradition-positive without being at all reactionary, the amazing relationships between the female characters, the snapshot of life in suburban seventies Japan (hint: It rhymes with Bevolutionary Boad), and the absolutely lovely writing (a sample passage, from a chapter in which Yuki, a runner in middle school at this point, develops her first crush on a fellow runner named Sachiko: 'The hurdler had long hair--Yuki imagined it would come down to her waist when she had it loose--which she wore in a thick ponytail, baring her long white neck. Her skin was fair even after a season of track practice in the sun. As she passed Yuki, she smiled, her lips curving upward just a little, not showing her teeth at all. Yuki smiled back and then looked down at her own knees....Her face felt hot.' From a chapter in which Yuki destroys a science lab project at her school to make an art project out of it: 'Moving silently, Yuki got the lid from the desk, washed and dried it, and put it back on the jar. The maple leaves and the pine needles had filled the jar almost to the top. She placed the jar carefully in the center of the desk among the scalpels and the microscopes. Then she took the empty colander and walked to the window, crawled through, and sat for a moment balanced on the edge, swinging her legs. She looked right and left. Nobody was in sight. First, she tossed the colander, which landed on the edge of the concrete path. The next moment, she pushed off with her arms and jumped out. She landed neatly on her two feet beyond the bushes and picked up the colander. Then, grasping it like a baton, she sprinted toward the woods for more maple leaves like clustered flames, pine needles that smelled of mountain air. Her ten minutes were long since used up. Miss Sakaki would fail her for today's assignment. Still, she would return in time to fill the tables with color. She began to smile as she ran.'). The book made me cry at many, many, many points, most of them in a good way, although the first four or so chapters of the book are truly dismal, as are both of the Hanae chapters.

Speaking of Hanae, she's another great thing about the book. She is so despicable. Initially she comes across as a stereotypical evil stepmother without much to her, but later we get to see what goes on inside her head. It is not pretty, but she becomes less of a caricature while remaining just as repulsive. It actually works really well.

The one issue that I have with the novel is the way a particular character near the end is presented. I don't have any problems with the character themself--in fact I actually like them a lot--but they come across to me as something like a Western lead character who stumbled into a supporting role in a Japanese story by mistake. If you read the book, and know me, you should end up with a pretty clear idea of who I mean and why I find what's done with them slightly (but not extremely) problematic, particularly given the focus on Yuki and Sachiko earlier in the book. It's a problem that could easily be resolved by either removing a single sentence, or tacking the character in question more firmly into Yuki's family somehow (this would work because of the tradition-positive and in particular family-based theme of the book), but as it is, what happens with this character leads to a somewhat uncomfortable lack of ambiguity in the end of the novel, and it just feels a little strange to me.

The best-written and most lovable character is probably Masa, Yuki's grandmother and Shizuko's mother. She doesn't appear much interacting with her daughter, since most of the flashbacks of Shizuko are Yuki's rather than hers, but it's obvious how very much she loved her. Shizuko has some flaws, most notably the fact that she killed herself despite having a preteen daughter who was very close to her (which is a pretty serious flaw, to be honest), but by and large she's presented as a very good, very loving person who had the misfortune to exist in (as they say) a world she never made, kind of like something between Anna Karenina throwing herself under the train and that guy jumping off the cliff early on in Madlax. Masa having raised Shizuko, and having a strong, fifty-year-long at the least relationship with her husband Takeo, and dealing with Yuki throughout an extremely unpleasantly (though understandably) self-pitying period in her early teenage years, and growing flowers and painting and doing crafts, comes across as pretty close to an ideal paragon of the values that the book espouses, but like Hanae in the other direction her point-of-view chapters make her a lot more interesting than a simple perfect exemplar would be.

Shizuko's Daughter is overall an incredibly good novel, the only problem that I had with it coming in one minor aspect of the role of one supporting character who shows up towards the end. This is considerably less problematic than I find the vast majority of things that I read. It's gorgeously written, with vibrant, engaging characters and images, and has an absolutely beautiful and very hopeful message in the end. And now what I really want is to find and read Mori's other work.