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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Inheritance from Mother

Mizumura Minae

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To purchase Inheritance from Mother

Title: Inheritance from Mother
Author: Mizumura Minae
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 448 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Inheritance from Mother - US
Inheritance from Mother - UK
Inheritance from Mother - Canada
La herencia de la Madre - España
  • Japanese title: 母の遺産―新聞小説
  • Originally serialized in the Yomiuri Shimbun
  • Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a first half that is somewhat too indulgently grim, but the aggregate ultimately impressive

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 12/8/2017 Nicolas Gattig
La Nacion . 21/2/2016 Laura Cardona
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/10/2019 Adam Kirsch
The NY Times Book Rev. . 11/6/2017 Jiayang Fan
Publishers Weekly . 13/3/2017 .
Wall St. Journal . 5/5/2017 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post . 11/5/2017 Ann Bauer
World Lit. Today . 9-10/2017 Suzanne Kamata

  From the Reviews:
  • "The first half of the book, with its focus on sickness, can get mired in realism. By the time Noriko at last makes her departure, the reader is likely to share a sense of relief with Mitsuki. But throughout the 66 chapters Mizumura keeps the pages turning in a style that is smooth and engaging. (...) The novel shifts in its second half, which feels more generously plotted and imagined." - Nicolas Gattig, The Japan Times

  • "Lejos de un abordaje sentimental o sensiblero, el universo femenino de la novela es delicado y complejo." - Laura Cardona, La Nacion

  • "The reader shares in Mizumura's sheer pleasure in invention as she raises narrative possibilities and discards them, changes focus and atmosphere, and adds new characters to keep the momentum going. Mizumura also, characteristically, turns the story into a self-conscious meditation on how serial novels helped to create modern Japanese literature" - Adam Kirsch, The New York Review of Books

  • "At 446 pages, the novel can be baggy on occasion, but there is admirable ambition in the way Mitsukiís story expands into a much larger portrait of middle-class anomie in a Japan still reckoning with its past and the paradoxes -- and fraught compromises -- of its identity." - Jiayang Fan, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In this compelling exploration of family history and its impact on relationships and traditions, Mizumura offers insight into how Japanese culture and shows how two daughters can survive the damage wrought by an onerous parent." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Ms. Mizumuraís frank, talky novel confronts the emotional and financial toll of looking after an ailing parent. (...) Itís the opposite of a storybook tale, yet Ms. Mizumura has tricked it out in the fashion of a 19th-century page-turner. (...) The 66 chapters are brief, emotionally combustible and, in Juliet Winters Carpenterís translation, liberally strewn with clichés (.....) Ms. Mizumura craftily mixes the old with the new, creating a highly readable throwback to popular dime novels that replaces gilt with guilt and romance with real talk." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "(G)orgeous and intimate (.....) One of the most entrancing things about this novel is that it retains the rhythm of a serial even in bound-book form. (...) Mizumuraís writing is urgent yet thorough, and her plot -- with its multiple divorces and infidelities, scheming, legends and deaths -- just short of overwrought. But her prose is controlled and as dense as poetry." - Ann Bauer, The Washington Post

  • "In spite of the novelís serious and somewhat mundane themes, a sense of mischief pervades. Mizumura manages to weave in a history of modern Japanese literature, along with echoes of Camus and Flaubert. (...) Perhaps Mizumuraís most audacious act in writing this story was to make her main character a relatively ordinary middle-aged woman." - Suzanne Kamata, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Inheritance from Mother is a two-part, sixty-six-installment serial novel (originally published 2010-2011 in the Yomiuri Shimbun). The main character is Mitsuki Hirayama, née Katsura, with the entire narrative essentially running through her. The novel opens shortly after the death of Mitsuki's mother, Noriko, but the entire first part (and half) is dominated by Mitsuki dealing with Noriko's decline and final days, looking back to what had led to this final point. The second part (and half) of the novel describes the events shortly after Noriko's death, the bulk of this section centered on a get-away hotel stay of Mitsuki's, as she prepares for the next stage of her life.
       Noriko's demise was a prolonged one, a fall that shattered her shoulder and broke her hip a final blow that led, over the course of her final year, to hospitalization, then a move to a nursing home -- where she quickly faded physically and mentally --, and then a somewhat prolonged illness requiring hospitalization again before she finally died. She had already long been dependent on Mitsuki, the younger daughter who dutifully fulfilled her obligations towards her aging mother; Noriko's older daughter, Natsuki, had a more strained relationship with her and was less involved (though in fact she did do her bit, if not necessarily her fair share).
       The imperious Noriko is a demanding person and patient, and it wears down Mitsuki -- who also, unlike her sister, who married into a wealthy family, is more money-conscious. Mitsuki also can't forgive or forget how her mother treated her own husband, shuffling off Mitsuki and Natsuki's ill father to sadly waste away in hospital for years before he finally died -- unable even to bring herself to visit him (with, again, Mitsuki playing the role of dutiful daughter, the main family caregiver and companion) and instead having an affair with someone Mitsuki only refers to as 'That Man'.
       This is a novel suffused with Japanese culture and traditions -- specifically, but not solely, regarding family. Noriko's own position was difficult as a child: while her father acknowledged her (and was relatively supportive) she was illegitimate, a stain that the detailed family register always revealed (and, for example, apparently prevented the smart girl from getting into a better school). Issues of social class and standing are pervasive, from the concerns that Noriko and her husband have when the wealthy family Natsuki is to marry into wants to make the traditional visit to the bride-to-be's family's home to Mitsuki's realization that even though she met her husband, Tetsuo, when both were studying in Paris, he came from much more humble circumstances, and could never be as cultured as she was -- a barrier between them.
       Much of the novel takes place around New Year's-seasons -- a traditional time of paying formal visits and bringing of symbolic gifts -- and regardless of circumstances, there is a great deal of emphasis on proper protocol and going through the right motions, right down to the seemingly bizarre, as in Mitsuki's brief visit with her in-laws in the final stages of the novel. Sense of obligation, especially to family -- a sharing of burdens and debts, a willingness to help less fortunate relatives (as was also the case with Noriko when she was young, as she was allowed to be part of a household in which she otherwise would not belong) -- come up throughout the novel, in seemingly endless variations; almost no one seems untouched by the burdens (and, very occasionally, the benefits) of (extended-)familial obligations Throughout, Mizumura also repeatedly frames questions and issues of cultural behavior and standards -- often very directly, as Mitsuki wonders why she puts herself through this living hell with a person she has very ambivalent feelings about:

Mitsuki wondered about herself: was it because she was Japanese that she simply didn't walk away and be done with her ?
       The book is remarkably forthright about how annoyed Mitsuki is about serving a demanding mother who she believes is, objectively, undeserving. While she does consider what her mother has been through too -- and admires how she was able to pull herself out of the difficult circumstances she was born into -- and while she understands that it is simply her mother's personality that makes it impossible for her to be any different, it doesn't make Mitsuki's (deferential) role in her mother's life any easier.
       Right at the start, when Natsuki's death is briefly described, among the things that come to Mitsuki's mind are:
     Aujourd'hui, mamn est morte. Today, mother died. The opening line of the first novel she had ever read in French, long ago.
       In this opening chapter, it's unclear why these specific words -- the opening of Camus' The Stranger (or The Outsider) -- come to her mind, but seems quite reasonable, suggesting her French and literary connections. But the line is returned to repeatedly, and its meaning turns out to be considerably darker -- an invocation, almost:
      Mitsuki no longer remembered how she may have responded. All she could remember was that then, for the first time, it came to her with burning clarity: she wished her mother would die.
     That night, before falling asleep she had murmured into the darkness the words "Today, Mother died." From then on she waited for the day when she might say those words out loud for real.
       It's an eerie gloss on the words that readers encountered a hundred and fifty pages earlier -- and speaks also to Mizumura's style and approach, which often leads and looks back, revealing (or subtly twisting or expanding on) the true meaning to earlier scenes, observations, and exchanges.
       Inheritance from Mother is not only a novel about a woman dealing with her relationship with her mother, and her mother's death; just when Natsuki has her debilitating fall she makes a discovery about her husband: Tetsuo had already cheated on her twice before, and Mitsuki now realizes he is again embroiled in an affair. When she sets off for the hospital she's: "Half dazed by how completely life could change in a day", and it is these two changes -- her mother's physical and mental decline, and the collapse of her marriage -- that preöccupy her for the remainder of the novel, her dealings with her mother the focus of the first part of the novel and then, after Natsuki's death, how she should go on with her life and her marriage.
       Tetsuo is not much of a presence in the novel, conveniently spending the time around his mother-in-law's last days on an extended stay in Vietnam; indeed, Mitsuki's separation from him widens so quickly that she doesn't even bother notifying him immediately when Natsuki passes away. In fact, while Tetsuo has hidden his affair, in these final days, and afterwards, it is Mitsuki who largely keeps him in the dark: hacking into his email, she learns the extent of his betrayal and then plans her countermoves without letting on to him what she knows; the resolution is among the clinically coldest marital-dispute-resolutions I've ever come across in a work of fiction.
       Culture -- Japanese and foreign (and Japanese-influenced-by-the-foreign); literature and music -- are significant themes in the novel. The book that Mitsuki turns to while tending to her mother and then also when she goes away after her mother's death is Madame Bovary; only relatively late do we learn the added significance this text has for Mitsuki, an opportunity that could have been life-changing (and, in its after-echoes in the optimistic conclusion, perhaps might be again) -- yet another example of Mizumura's slow-simmering approach, the true significance of the seemingly incidental eventually revealed. In any case, the Flaubert-novel casts a long shadow over Mitsuki's family-story -- as she also can't help but think in terms related to the book:
People left this world, blissfully unaware of how their Bovarism seeped into the lives of others.
       "Novels are heartless", Mizumura observes in this story where the literary depiction of life figures prominently. Inheritance from Mother is a serial novel, in the old tradition, and Mizumura repeatedly explores that old, lost world too. A brief note at the beginning of the novel tells readers that Inheritance from Mother is: "an homage to the dying tradition of serial novels" -- and ultimately she has her protagonist recognize that:
     She herself was the offspring of a serial novel.
       Without naming any of them, the first chapter already alludes to three dominant texts for the novel: Camus' The Stranger, Madame Bovary (which is what the: "French novel, the one she had started reading at her mother's bedside during those last few days" is revealed to be), and: "an old serial novel of tragic love" that is eventually revealed to be Ozaki Kōyō's late nineteenth-century The Golden Demon [a 1905 Englished version is available here] (Japanese readers may well have recognized the latter immediately, from the mentions of the two protagonists, but Mitsuki -- like Mizumura -- know times have changed (and that's part of her point, with this example, and with her novel): "From her experience teaching, she was accustomed to the ignorance of the younger generation; Takeru was doing well just to have heard of the two names".)
       In the opening chapter, at her mother's death, Mitsuki recalls a scene from The Golden Demon, and a visit with her mother to the locale; when she goes on her hotel-get-away, she revisits the place -- a point by which Mizumura has drawn the connections to the classical serial novel at much greater length --, in another wonderful example of how Mizumura returns, re-uses, and amplifies scenes and observations.
       A beautiful twist, too, comes with the revelation that The Golden Demon was, in fact, not 'authentic': the heart-breaking Japanese love story was, in fact, based on: "an American dime novel", Bertha M. Clay's Weaker than a Woman -- information that came as a shock to Natsuki.
       Mizumura notes that Ozaki never hid this fact, and suggests:
The news was shocking only because Japanese people had forgotten their country's literary history of a mere hundred years before, when modern Japanese literature began taking shape through translation and adaptation.
       Yet again, the clash and overlap of cultures figures in the story, cleverly brought up by Mizumura in yet another guise.
       Language -- beyond just literature -- is also significant throughout; it's no coincidence that Mitsuki also does part-time translation work (even if most of it is regarding patents). Repeatedly, Mizumura notes how Mitsuki has to expand her vocabulary, as she is drawn into worlds that had been foreign to her -- medicine and divorce law:
     Life, it seemed, required people to learn not only technical terms like "gastrostomy" and "dysphagia" but also "consensual division," "pension splitting," and "retirement bonus allocation."
       The serial nature of the novel gives Inheritance from Mother the feeling of a very paced novel, with each chapter similar in length; anchored in the present, beginning with the mother's death and then the days and weeks afterwards, they nevertheless range far and wide, looking back and far afield, covering many of the family members' very different lives (and then, at the hotel, introducing half a dozen more life-stories).
       The personal distance can be jarring for foreign readers: there is some passion, but it tends to be short-lived; there is little resembling love. Even a man who Mitsuki meets, who is mourning the great love of his life, admits that his wife, who loved singing, could never once bring herself to sing for him. Filial and familial obligation are the driving forces; love seems incidental. Mitsuki and Tetsuo behave comfortably and properly with one another, but it's easy to see that, as Mitsuki realizes, any flame between them has been extinguished.
       The first half of the novel, delving into Noriko's medical decline and her daughter's frustration with having to do her duty, feels over-indulgent; it's also fairly medically grim and gritty. (Mizumura apparently writes from experience, at least regarding dealing with a mother in decline, and it shows; the medical and care-giving parts are the ones obviously closest to her actual experience, and by far the weakest of the novel -- a great example of how writers should not write what they know.) Parts of the hotel-stay section -- most of the second-half of the novel -- also feel somewhat too carefully staged, but the added variety here helps distract a bit from that. The novel ultimately works -- is ultimately a success -- because of the attention to detail, the small bits, like Madame Bovary, that are returned to again and again, and whose meaning and significance changes, grows, and is enhanced. Mizumura weaves a great deal in here, and she does some of this remarkably well.
       Inheritance from Mother is, in part -- indeed, for most of its first half -- a not too pleasant example of the burgeoning genre of geriatric-lit. Way too bodily-function-intimate, this isn't everybody's cup of tea -- certainly not mine. It speaks to Mizumura's talents that she sustains interest with a constantly growing background that situates -- and re-situates -- the main characters and their latter-day situations, and then moves beyond it. The resolutions can seem a bit rosy -- and all that money-tallying can get tiresome, no matter how true-to-life it is -- but ultimately Mizumura weaves together an impressive story that resonates on an impressive variety of levels.
       Steeped in literature, Inheritance from Mother is also a work of literature -- and a fascinating example of the overlap of Japanese and foreign influences, nicely brought to the fore by Mizumura.
       Ultimately certainly worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 January 2017

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Inheritance from Mother: Reviews: Mizumura Minae: Other books by Mizumura Minae under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Mizumura Minae (水村 美苗) was born in 1951.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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