By Amanda Eyre Ward
By Emily Itami
What is the cost of a mother’s desire? In her debut novel, “Fault Lines,” Emily Itami explores this question with wit and poignancy. Mizuki, Itami’s protagonist, lives in Tokyo with her husband, Tatsuya, and their two children, daughter Eri and son Aki. “My children,” she reflects. “My life’s work, my greatest loves, orchestrators of total psychological trauma and everyday destruction.”
Her life is airless, packed with stultifying tasks: “Japanese motherhood and its attendant housewifery is a cult,” says Mizuki. “And its initiates take very poorly to anyone who thinks they can enter without going the whole hog.”
Mizuki is miserable, her previous persona — a struggling and sexy singer — erased. “Before I had domesticity in my title, I dreamed of my name in lights.” Between her motherly duties, she ponders her old website, noting: “I look nearly the same as I do now, just happier.”
Itami’s prose is distant, maybe inspired by the character’s remove from her own life — Mizuki is a Japanese woman writing in English, after all.(Itami’s narrator tells us late in the book about a revelatory year spent perfecting her English in America.)
When Mizuki meets a man named Kiyoshi and feels the frisson of a new relationship, it’s hard not to root for her pleasure. Their affair is dreamy to read about: They meet in tucked-away neighborhoods like Kagurazaka, which is filled with cobblestoned streets, French cafes and historic geisha homes. They sample Camembert, snack on osenbei rice crackers, take leisurely time to watch sweets being made and visit an elegant paper shop. Best of all, swoons Mizuki, Kiyoshi is “the first person in years who thought about the answers to the questions I asked him and looked right at me when he replied.”
Tatsuya, worn out from work and (perhaps) the role he is forced to play, does not question his wife’s nighttime outings. Mizuki brings Kiyoshi to a fetish club, where she notices that “the dominatrix has the mannerisms of Eri’s piano teacher.” The lovers eat yakitori at the night market in Ebisu, wander from bar to bar in the arches of Ginza, and roam “the narrow, squalid streets of the Golden Gai.” Mizuki reinhabits her former self: “We smoke. We drink. We swear.” They enjoy the “hedonistic pleasures of the moment.”
Itami’s descriptions of spring in Japan are to be savored: The cherry blossoms are a “hyperbolic froth of pink cloud”; Aki and Eri “delight in throwing them in the air, making snowstorms and confetti.” But despite her lush surroundings, fault lines run beneath Mizuki’s world. “Maybe in all those years of happy marriage, Tatsu thought that Nice Wife Mizuki was the Real Me and was disappointed when fault lines started to appear,” she says. But it is an actual earthquake that forces Mizuki to reckon with the consequences of her shadow life.
I was once told by an editor that the best stories offer an “A” and a “B” ending, but then delight a reader with a surprising but inevitable “C.” Sadly, Itami’s novel ends with a dull option “B.” I found myself wishing Mizuki could seek pleasure and adventure freely. Perhaps for some, the only way to escape is by opening a book and traveling to a place as magical as Covid-free Tokyo, without a mask, in springtime.
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