‘Flames’ by Yūko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt

I read Yūko Tsushima’s novel in stories, Territory of Light, during the early days of the pandemic and though it was originally published in Japan in the late ‘70s, the descriptions of the narrator’s circumscribed life alone in her apartment with her young daughter after leaving her husband seemed to speak to my own sense of isolation like nothing else at that moment. In ‘Flames’, the narrator finds herself frequently encountering funerals, and is haunted by a series of deaths in her community, which reach a climax when chemical factory explodes nearby, lighting up the night in surges of sparks and color. The story is infused with a sense of grief—including the narrator’s own feelings of loss over the end of her marriage, implicit but never directly stated—but it also includes surprising moments of tenderness, as when the little girl attempts to care for her mother when she comes down with a fever, delighting in this reversal of roles. ‘Flames’, to some, might be considered a “quiet” story because not much happens—or, rather, the dramatic events in the background are not what matters here. “Quiet” tends to be used as a pejorative—one that’s been directed at my own work many times—but I have always believed in the power of quiet fiction, and ‘Flames’ is proof that plot is not what gives a story gravity or meaning.

Included in Territory of Light, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s