“The secrets inside her mind are like flowers in a garden at nighttime, filling the darkness with perfume.”– Fumiko Enchi, Masks
This is my first book by a female Japanese author. The ones that come after Enchi will have a lot to live up to. The book started off slowly but it soon held my interest and was quite surprising in some ways despite its subtle tone.
I don’t know much about Noh plays but it was clear that the use of masks was a metaphor for hiding one’s true self. In this case, the secrecy is evident in the bizarre relationship between the widowed Yasuko, and Mieko, her 50-something year old mother-in-law, who seems to be manipulating Yasuko, plus the two men who are in love with her. We spend the entire novel trying to get to know more about Mieko:
“She has a peculiar power to move events in whatever direction she pleases, while she stays motionless. She’s like a quiet mountain lake whose waters are rushing beneath the surface toward a waterfall. She’s like the face of a No mask, wrapped in her own secrets.”
This book is shrouded in mystery which is made even more fascinating by discussion of spiritualism, and the love triangle between Yasuko and her two suitors. There is curiosity about whether Mieko is controlling Yasuko’s spirit, this fact even questioned by Yasuko herself:
“Not I, Mother. It’s you who like him—somehow, time and again, your feelings seem to take hold of me. This is not just some crazy excuse; so many times I’ve found myself doing things that don’t make a bit of sense—and every time, without fail, I feel you there in the background, manipulating me like a puppet.”
I enjoyed the literary critique of a section of “The Tale of the Genji”, which I’ve never read before, regarding female shamanism. I think the book can in part be seen as an analysis of the Japanese woman, both in more modern times and in the olden days. I’m not sure if much has changed, at least according to Enchi; women are seen as manipulative, jealous etc. At the same time, I think Enchi allowed us to see how multi-faceted her female characters were, which is something I always appreciate in literature. Not only are women multi-faceted, apparently they are sort of enigmas too, unknowable to the male characters:
“Children—think what endless trouble men have gone to over the ages to persuade themselves that the children their women bore belonged to them! Making adultery a crime, inventing chastity belts…but in the end they were unable to penetrate even one of women’s secrets.”
In the end all these ingredients leave us with is a story that is so compelling, interesting and shocking. I’m also left with the desire to read “The Tale of the Genji.” I’m sure with that book under my belt, and more knowledge of Noh plays, I’ll rate this book higher.