Inheritance from Mother (NetGalley)
translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter
Their mother’s body lies cold in the mortuary while two sisters, Mitsuki and Natsuki, discuss how much they’ll inherit from the estate. Mrs. Katsura had been ill for the last year of her life, so the death itself is really no surprise. What was a surprise for this reader was the frank discussion the daughters were having about the inheritance–and their emotional response (or lack of it!) to losing their mother. Mitsuki estimates they’ll each receive thirty-five million yen. The day ends with Mitsuki feeling “exhilarated, knowing that her mother was finally dead”; the sisters’ excitement “was identical–keen and palpable.”
At this point I expected some surprise twist–a codicil in the will, maybe–that would expose the women’s greed and put them in their place. What follows, however, is a poignant examination of life with a difficult mother, two sisters’ strained relationship, and the far-reaching effects of that dysfunction. That story has been told many times over, it’s true. But what made the Minae Mizumura’s novel so compelling is its peek inside of contemporary Japanese culture, one that contrasts our Western stereotypes of respectful Japanese daughters and beloved matriarchs.
Natusuki married into money; she and her cellist husband live a privileged life–yet Natsuki still muses that the inheritance might give her the freedom to divorce. Mitsuki is an adjunct university professor who also translates novels into French. Her husband Tetsuo, also a professor, is a media personality of sorts, appearing as an expert commentator on television news. Their marriage, however, is unraveling–the day her mother broke her hip (that slipperly slide towards death for so many elderly), Mitsuki discovers Tetsuo is having another fling in what has been a long series of affairs. Both women are plagued with vague health issues, we assume brought on by the stress of life in modern Japan. (Ever heard of “air conditioning syndrome“? Me, neither.) As the story unravels, we learn that Mother Noriko had been an indulged child, the daughter of a concubine, and it was that stigma that shadowed every particular of her life–and her daughters’ lives, as well. Constantly set against each other by Noriko, Natsuki and Mitsuki are more often fierce competitors than loving sisters.
By the novel’s end, both sisters come to piece together enough of their mother’s life to understand her–if only a little. The sisters also come to understand their own relationship, each recognizing the value of the other–and that, perhaps, is the most precious inheritance of all.