Yu Nagashima, Mother at Hyperspeed (2001) and Dog in a Side Car (2002)

These two novellas are published together in France under the first title, but it’s pretty misleading because the mother in the second story is hardly present.

Anyway, it seems logical to present them together. Both stories are told from the point of view of a child (a girl in the Dog…, a boy in Hyperspeed…) not quite into their teens (I’d say 12). Both children are sensitive, and rather wise for their age, lonely and introspective, but they seem aloof and don’t register much emotion while adults play havoc with their family life. They coolly observe adults acting emotionally, sometimes foolishly, but always unexpectedly.

In The Dog in a Side Car, a young woman, Kaoru, remembers a particular summer of her childhood when her mother had left her home and children (her brother and herself) under the “care” of the father, who is every bit of a loser. He’s supposed to run a used-car business but he’s mostly a lazy feckless guy who likes to play tricks with his buddies.

On the contrary, the mother seems a model of neurotic, petit-bourgeois rigidity and it’s little wonder that the self-possessed little girl is not particularly saddened by the absence of her mother at first, especially as both parents fought all the time. She enjoys a bit of freedom, especially as her father’s “girlfriend”, an eccentric young woman, Yoko, settles in. There’s no trace of judgment in this pretty sticky situation, because the girl is so young that she seems to take in everything as normal, and she doesn’t consider the future or the implications of all the events that the adults are going through.

Yoko is a bit of fresh air for the young girl. She helps broaden her horizon and brings joy, laughters and passion to her otherwise dreary and empty life. But as we read it as adults we know that the summer’s arrangement is only temporary and that Yoko will leave sooner or later. The novella ends on a bitter-sweet note as we are to contemplate the later development of the family after Yoko left and how Kaoru and her brother grew up.

The second novella is about a young boy who is raised by her divorced mother. After the divorce they have gone to live in a small town in Hokkaido where she grew up. She fights to build a new life despite financial hardships, the pressure of her parents to remarry and the pressure of her boyfriends to make concessions. By little touches, we get to see how much the son cares for her mother. Like Yoko in the other text, the mother in this text is very far from the cliché of the meek, polite and conventional Japanese woman.

These two novellas leave a light, subtle impression and there’s a lot more to enjoy than just the facts I’m crudely summing up here. The children’s voice in each story is pleasant and clear. Sadly Yu doesn’t seem to have been much translated (although both novellas won literary prizes in Japan), but I’m always happy to give a chance to new Japanese voices.