Skip to main content

Inheritance from Mother

Review

Inheritance from Mother

Minae Mizumura’s third novel, INHERITANCE FROM MOTHER, was serialized in a national Japanese newspaper from 2010 to 2011. This was a homage to the dying tradition of posting monthly installments of a novel in order to give subscribers time between chapters to read and discuss among friends. It is a particularly effective method of telling a revealing, moving story in a non-linear fashion.

The successful part of this serialization is that the chapters are relatively short and narrowly focused on just one character or one event. “City of Miracles,” for example, introduces the city of Paris and shows how Japanese students in France acted and reacted to one another and to the French culture. Of course, Mitsuki, the older daughter, explores the streets and shops and considers other students, but the city where miracles take place is of primary importance. The less successful part of serialization is that there must be, necessarily, some overlapping of times and stories. Both Natsuki, the younger, prettier daughter, and Mitsuki, less traditionally beautiful, acknowledge again and again the theme of their mother’s selfishness and greediness.

"The successful part of this serialization is that the chapters are relatively short and narrowly focused on just one character or one event."

The novel opens with Mitsuki speaking with Natsuki on the phone shortly after their mother’s death. The topic? How much money will be left from her estate after the cost of the nursing home. Mitsuki calculates that she will be able to go to a hot spring and perhaps quit her teaching job. Natsuki is already very wealthy, and the amount left is of much less importance to her. Mitsuki later remembers how their mother’s fall in front of a laundry shop broke her hip and shoulder, which meant moving her to a nursing home, the easiest way to take care of her. She also remembers wondering about and then realizing that people didn’t die of broken hips or shoulders. And then being ashamed.

Mitsuki’s marriage is in trouble, as her husband of many years is having yet another affair. Memories of their courtship and marriage are filled with details of Japanese life, both modern and traditional, and we are given glimpses of the expectations for both mothers’ and daughters’ roles. She remembers Tetsuo’s first fling when he was on sabbatical in California, and she slowly acknowledges to herself that she must confront him. Her health and happiness were shutting down, and she would need to rebel against acceptance. This view of a culture different from our own helps temper some of the criticism about Mitsuki’s treatment of her mother.

The rich inheritance from Noriko, the mother who lives to her mid-80s, takes many forms. One piece may be found as Mitsuki and her mother are talking on the phone as a typhoon is approaching. The next morning, Noriko makes Mitsuki guess what she did. Mitsuki cannot. “I put out all the lights in the house, lit a candle, and sang my heart out. Sang every aria I could think of. Nobody could hear me in the middle of that storm.” Mitsuki pictures the white-haired crone singing at the top of her lungs, as rain lashed and winds blew, on and on she sang in the glow of a single candle. Noriko’s only regret? She couldn’t sing the way she used to.

Another piece of Noriko’s inheritance may be vocabulary lessons. Early in life, Mitsuki read of silk stockings and black lace gloves; now she was learning words like “dysphagia” and “femoral-neck fracture.” These words, and her mother’s life, now seemed devoid of poetry and romance. And Mitsuki added “aspiration pneumonia” to that lesson. These reflections on language parallel her reflections on her mother’s life.

Throughout INHERITANCE FROM MOTHER, Mitsuki recalls again and again the opening sentence of THE STRANGER: “Today, Mother died.” The desire to be able to say those words had been growing for years, she thinks to herself, and then it recedes far into the background. Mitsuki is reminded that her mother was just another old woman trying to get by. The conflicting recollections, known to each of us with our own mothers and fathers, change Mitsuki and give her courage to reclaim a life for herself.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on May 26, 2017

Inheritance from Mother
by Minae Mizumura

  • Publication Date: May 2, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press
  • ISBN-10: 1590517822
  • ISBN-13: 9781590517826