Present Perfect

There are times you wish that you could be a different person making a different decision. You sometimes wish that you had chosen a different path or wish that you could start over and do certain things differently. But you realise that there are things that you love from your present life and you cannot possibly pick the good part and change the less savoury part. Things do not work that way. Life is a mixed bag and it is complicated.

The Midnight Library is an interesting read that asks the question : Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets? Matt Haig writes about the human condition, the good and the bad of it. Excellent read.

The book starts with a passage by Sylvia Plath.

I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life.’

click here on an earlier post for The Midnight Library.

Shibuya, Tokyo 30, Dec 2017

In Fault Lines by Emily Itami, Mizuki, a Japanese young woman is married to Tatsuya. She appears to have got it all, a perfect life -two beautiful children, a hardworking husband and they live in a beautiful apartment with views from balconies in Tokyo. Since his recent promotion, his mind never leaves the office, and he comes home late. Mizuki waits up for him, cooks and never complains. Mizuki has a job where she gets to meet clients a few times a week. Her official title is Intercultural Consultant and her main role is to act as tour guide for the foreign visitors and foreigners who have been relocated to Tokyo. She has got the job through her ‘glamorous French friend, Eloise, who, despite having lived and worked in Tokyo for years, still assumed everyone around her was as straight- talking as they are in Paris and couldn’t understand the constant miscommunications‘.

Here is a narrative in Mizuki’s voice about examples of miscommunications.

When she recounted examples, the problem was blindingly obvious -she was hearing ‘yes’ when her Japanese friends and colleagues were saying ‘no’. When we gaze into the middle distance and make sympathetic, affirmative- sounding noises, it means’ no’. When we rephrase your question, or agree with your sentiment, it means ‘no’. And most obviously, but apparently most perplexingly to Westerners, often the answer ‘ yes’- clearly, evidently, incontrovertibly – means ‘no’. ‘

Fault Lines, Emily Itami

Ghibli Studio, Tokyo

While MIzuki had always meant to become a mother, she did not set out to become a housewife. Once upon a time, before Tatsu and the kids she had dreamt of her name in lights.

When she was sixteen years old, her dad had sent her to New York on a student exchange programme. After spending one year attending an American high school , she finds herself at odds with her own culture. While she feels pride in the complexities of Japanese culture, she also feels entrapped with all that has been imposed on her by the culture.

New York was a revelation for her. She was staying with the Michaelsons who were nonchalant about things that would have had her parents keeling over. She was surprised that she could ‘do a maths lesson in anything other than a long-skirted school uniform and sometimes there were teachers you could call by their first names and flirt with‘. When her host sister, Cassie and her got drunk at house parties, Cassie’s father commented that he was glad they had ‘had fun and kept it control.’

Cassie’s mother’s job had something to do with arts sector in the city. She would kiss her daughter absently on the head ‘while she rummaged in her bag for the $20 Cassie needed, still on the phone to someone important.’

During her year in New York, Mizuki found out that she had a taste of performing and singing before an audience and liked it. When she arrived home, she could not keep up with her kanji and Japanese studies and was no longer the daughter her parents had said goodbye to. She wanted to pursue her singing dream so she went back to New York for three years before returning to Japan.Her mother wept that her morals had been corrupted by America. Now that Mizuki is a mother, she sometimes feels like she misses her mother even when they sit next to one another.

Marriage was not on her mind until she met Tatsuya. They have been together for sixteen years, which is over half her life. Her elder daughter. Eri is ten going on eleven and her son Aki is four. As it happens in most marriages, the man assumes the role of breadwinner as the woman assumes the role of homemaker. After two kids, they settle into their routine, she feels like she is stuck in a rut.

In her voice, Mizuki muses,

If i’d had a career, I could change jobs, apply for a promotion, do something. If i’d stayed in New York, I could have had it all couldn’t I ? But I am a Japanese Housewife, a proper, old -school job for life, and you only get to choose your colleague once.’

I love beautiful things, beautiful people , the magnetism of someone you can’t take your eyes off. It used to be fun morphing into that person, tending to all the details that make the fantasy, but now I can’t imagine it. It isn’t as if I’ve turned into Jabba the Hutt; physically I don’t look all that different. But nothing about me is inviting or mysterious or alluring. And where would I be luring anyone to – a den full of Hello Kitty tea sets ? When would I be giving the come-hither eyes – on my way back from the supermarket, on my pink mamachari bicycle, with bags of groceries loaded onto the front and back baskets? In my anorak, dripping wet, at the door of Eri’s ballet class with tis distinct children’s aroma of funky shoeboxes?

One day i’d remember to be both competent mother and radiant beauty. Tatsu would once again be prostrate at my feet and I’d be full of the serenity of Venus.

How many times have I wished I could be outside myself, outside all my limitations and neuroses, so I could make a different decision and live a different life? Now, when I remember what I wanted before I met Kiyoshi, I think it was just to start over, to do it all again for the first time, or maybe not to do it at all. To have a clean slate. To be somebody else. But then there would be no Aki, no Eri, and life doesn’t work like that, does it? So I’m not leaving Tatsu for Kiyoshi, because that might be love, maybe, but it isn’t happiness, not for me or for anybody else.’ 

Fault Lines, Emily Itami

In the story, Mizuki meets Kiyoshi, a restaurateur and in him, she rediscovers freedom, friendship, a voice and the neon, city lights that she has always loved. To her, Kiyoshi is somebody who’s succeeding in doing what they dreamt of doing, an impossible thing. Unlike her ‘pedestrian floundering‘ and failing efforts to pursue her singing dream , his dream is a reality and he is proof that you can build castles in the sky.

Emily Itami‘s writing is lyrical,dreamy and descriptive.

Here is how the story begins.

The whole Kiyoshi situation started a long time before he was ever in the picture. The way a calligraphy painting begins before the first black stroke makes it onto the page. Begins when the painter collects together scroll and brushes and grinds up the pigment, or even before that when he (or she- and yet , int this country, it’s almost invariably he) has an idea in his head of what to paint. So , the scene was already set, the pigment crushed, the painterly hand posted. ‘

Emily Itami‘s writing is also insightful in that Mizuki’s musings and observations are totally relatable. For Example, ‘On occasions, my whole life can feel like a pile-up of unintended consequences.’ I feel that way on occasions too.

Muzuki is torn between her traditional duties and role as a wife and mother, societal expectations of women and her own unfulfilled dreams. Fault Lines by Emily Itami is a modern tale about a mother’s love for her children, collision of old and new traditions and a woman’s identity. The book is shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award.


2 thoughts on “Present Perfect

  1. I loved the Midnight Library! It gave me a different look at ‘if you could’ve done anything in life’. There’s no real way to tell if our other decisions would’ve given us better lives than our current ones, despite it seeming ‘better’ on paper. One of the better books I’ve read in 2021.


    1. The Midnight Library is an excellent read. You could have made a different decision and there could be other possibilities but whichever version you might land yourself in, there would bound to be new challenges. I have enjoyed Matt Haig’s other books too. Thank you for stopping by, Stuart.


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