The Australian writer of this book describes a carefully planned trip a woman takes with her mother in Japan. It is narrated by the daughter who tells in precise terms what she planned for the trip and how it unfolds. The mother grew up in Hong Kong and while Australia is never mentioned by name, that is where the mother raised the narrator and her sister. The father is not mentioned and in fact much is left unsaid.
I found the descriptive language to be unusually pleasing. Here is how the author begins:
When we left the hotel it was raining, a light, fine rain, as can sometimes happen in Tokyo in October. I said that where we were going was not far—we would only need to get to the station, the same one that we had arrived at yesterday, and then catch two trains and walk a little down some small streets until we got to the museum. I got out my umbrella and opened it, and pulled up the zipper of my coat. It was early morning and the street was filled with people, mostly walking away from the station, rather than toward it as we were. All the while, my mother stayed close to me, as if she felt that the flow of the crowd was a current, and that if we were separated, we would not be able to make our way back to each other, but continue to drift further and further apart. The rain was gentle, and consistent.
The hypnotic flow of words was soothing and seemed as though they were leading toward a revelation. I was always happy to be reading and found myself limiting my reading to small parcels which were all satisfying.
The narrator describes the carefully chosen restaurants, as well as the notable sights, art museums, and a museum in a park that recreates the look of life during the Edo period. The mother was agreeable to the activities, but occasionally looked weary to the daughter. In fact the daughter noted that her greatest joy was in an ordinary little shop where she carefully chose presents she would take back to give to others. I concluded the activities were chosen by the daughter for her own pleasure and were in one instance, impossible for the mother to join in, much less enjoy.
The daughter planned a walk along an old trail through forests. She realized this was not possible for both of them because it had been raining all week and the trails would be muddy. She adds peevishly that “My mother had not brought proper hiking shoes like I had asked her,” but acknowledged that such a hike would have been a cruel imposition on this grandmother. She has the mother stay in a traditional inn while she undertakes the challenging walk which includes an overnight in a shelter.
The narrator inquires into her approach of mastering blocks of information, specifically as a student in the academic study of art. As they are looking at a painting by Monet, she speaks to her mother of the pressure to articulate an opinion that “usually only came with a certain education. This, I said, allowed you to speak of history and context, and was in many ways like a foreign language. For a long time, I had believed in this language, and I had done my best to become fluent in it. But I said that sometimes, increasingly often in fact, I was beginning to feel like this kind of response too was false, a performance, and not the one I had been looking for.”
Perhaps the prose in this book is the equivalent of an academic study and while it is a beautifully fluent recitation, the narrator acknowledges that it may not get to the fundamental truth she was seeking. I assume the narrator wanted a fuller understanding of what they were seeing and a deeper connection with her mother. The author tells us that even the diligent work by the narrator left her feeling she had not reached that goal. I was satisfied that she understood the limits of her efforts and I loved the beauty of that effort.
I was reminded of an Irish book I truly loved, Molly Fox’s Birthday and this thought I recorded about it: “The narrator, although she was not able to live the life of her large Catholic family, remained close and spoke to them frequently by phone, keeping up with all their mundane news. Their formulaic conversation does make for true communication, she says.”
Jessica Au, Cold Enough for Snow, New Directions, 2022, 95 pages. Available in the public library.