Mary Yukari Waters’ debut collection of short stories, The Laws of Evening, is simply beautiful. Each story in the collection is exquisitely crafted, nuanced and breathtaking. In the background of each story are the most recent historical events that have significantly impacted Japanese culture and society: the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, World War II, the Surrender and the Occupation by American forces. I have read collections of stories that have also been set in the same period. Waters’ collection differs significantly from those stories because she looks intimately at the lives of the women and men who survived and how they coped, not at the overwhelming shame or the singular impact of the Imperial Surrender.
The collection has eleven stories and while it is hard to pick my absolute favorites, the following stories literally brought me to tears:
Since My House Burned Down – an old woman reflects on the loss of her power in her household and the threats to Japanese culture due the growing influence of Western values on the younger generation. She also mourns the death of both her husband and her daughter, Momoko .
Shibusa – tells of a woman who encounters a friend from the past and finds him much changed for the worse due to the bombings of Nagasaki. It also talks about how people use etiquette to cope with the harshness and tragedies of life. She remarks about meeting her old friend:
“Today, what strikes me most about that morning – for memory will always shift focus– is our wordless farewell as Nishitani-san and I bowed to each other…. How lovely our bows would have seemed to a casual onlooker; stately, seasoned, like movements in a sacred dance”
Aftermath – a young war widow struggles to get her 7-year old son to hold on to his memories of his father while trying to hold at bay the influences of the occupying American forces. Her son, disturbed that his memory of his father is fading, ask his mother whether he will “keep on forgetting”. To which his mother replies “From this age on, you’re going to remember everything, Toshi-kun. Nothing more will ever be lost”.
The Laws of Evening – the title story about a woman who observes the first, third, seventh, thirteenth, thirty-third and fiftieth sutra chant anniversaries of the deaths of her husband and twin daughters. After completing the last sutra chant she wonders
“ What now? Croquet at the senior citizens’ center… This final period of her life should be more than a pitiful appendage to middle age. If she carried into evening the laws of the afternoon – more activities, more people, more duties beyond all bounds of reason –something crucial would pass her by”
The Way Love Works – about a woman who transfers her affections, not to her second daughter, but to her granddaughter after the death of her first daughter. On love, the mother tells the granddaughter
“When you come first in someone’s heart…when you feel the magnitude of another person’s love for you…you become a different person. I mean something physically changes inside of you…I want you to have that feeling, because it will sustain you, all your life. Life…life can get so hard.”
All the stories are focused on relationships and yes, loss. Given the period that the stories are based in, the sense of insecurity, death and dying can be overwhelming. And although the stories are sad, there is also a conviction that people will endure, survive and even thrive. As one character puts it “in the end, being alive is what matters”. Ms Waters’ writing is at once graceful, delicate, bold and fiery. I have been touched by the stories she has woven and the characters she has portrayed. I highly recommend this collection.