The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

the waiting years

Continuing my Japanese book strikes, my first book of 2016 is The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi. I read this together with the Japanese Literature book group on GR. It won the most votes out of the 5 books I proposed, and coincidentally it was probably the one I wanted to read the most, so it worked out nicely :).

Just a couple of dozens pages in, I was already surprised how quickly the plot was laid out. Somehow I was expecting it to be a slow read. The book is set in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912). It started with Tomo – wife of a high Japanese official – looking for a young girl to be brought home. For what purpose, it was clear to the reader: to be a second woman, or a concubine, but it was never said out loud among the characters. Unlike some other cultures, there was not an official concubine role in this society, as the man does not marry the girl. And I mean it when I said “girl”, because they were looking for a 15 year-old, inexperienced girl. The fact that the girl is underage made a very uncomfortable read to my modern eyes, probably more than any other issues that appear throughout the book.

The book kept surprising me throughout. I anticipated it to concentrate on catty rivalries between Tomo and the new girl, Suga, in the style of Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale (which I have not read, so I may be totally off, however Wikipedia mentions that Nagai Kafu was in young Enchi’s reading list). But it’s not. There would be more women coming into the house later on, but all the female characters get along with each other, for the most parts. How they behave felt very realistic, and to me showed how women behave in real life more than TV dramas. Hint: I’m not a fan of Asian TV dramas. I don’t like how in them people behave in such outrageous, outlandish, exaggerated manners.

In this book, the women are dignified and logical in handling what life gives them. I loved that we get very close into the heads of the women, offering insights that I never felt I got when I read the other big name Japanese authors – who happen to be mostly male. As far as I remember, the female characters in books written by Kawabata, Tanizaki, Soseki, Kobo Abe, or Mishima even, are all very distant and aloof, and we never really get into their heads. It’s hard to see them pass their outwardly submissive demeanour.

In the Waiting Years, though the women may still look to be submissive, there’s a lot of internal conflicts and struggles, and there’s anger that bubbles up in the characters, which is obviously Enchi’s own feminist views of the system. And that brought me to conclude, that this book I think could only be written by a woman, and I’m thankful Fumiko Enchi gave voices to these women and made them real. It’s an interesting portrait of Japanese culture at a particular time from a point of view that we rarely get.

I was wavering between 4.5 and 5 stars, but the ending pushed it over the edge. It’s incredibly powerful, and so sad that I shed some tears.

During the reading, I coincidentally found a beautiful second hand copy of Masks – another popular book by Enchi, which I look forward to reading sometime.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

Fumiko Enchi – finally, a favorite Japanese female author! (I really don’t like Banana Yoshimoto. I couldn’t stand her books.)

This also concludes Japanese Literature Challenge 9. From June 2015 to January 2016, I read 3 Japanese books:

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
Silence by Shusaku Endo
The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

A very successful challenge I must say! Considering my Japanese literature reading had been zero for the past few years. Will I continue the strikes? The books did whet my appetite for more, but on the other hand I have a lot of (reading) projects going on. Perhaps I will wait until June to continue again. See you in JLC 10 :)

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7 thoughts on “The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi”

  1. Ooohhh, I’ve just read the caption to your photo – I’ve only read one book by Banana Yoshimoto (Hardboiled and Hard Luck) and I enjoyed it so I might have to read Enchi to see if we agree or disagree on that one!

    1. Would love to know what you think! I read 2 of Banana Yoshimoto books many years ago (Kitchen and Lizard). Didn’t like them, so I’m done with her.

  2. Loved reading your thoughts on this, definitely an author I would like to find and read myself. Like you, I’ve tried Banana Yoshimoto, and didn’t like her style either. So far, the only other female Japanese author I can think of is Yoko Ogawa, and I’ve been quite drawn to her.

    Anyway, you’ve definitely made me interested in this new author, so hopefully I’ll be able to read something by her soon-ish… =)

    1. Yes, Yoko Ogawa is one I haven’t tried – and I have 4 of her books! Banana Yoshimoto for me seems to be more for younger audience, like early 20s possibly.

      Oh, I’m reminded of Natsuo Kirino, whose “Out” I loved, but I haven’t got the inclination to read more, because she seems to write mainly drama-thriller, which I like very occasionally but not all the time.

  3. Although I’m familiar with Enchi, I have never read her books – I must remedy that! I particularly enjoyed what you said when comparing female characters written by men (you mention Spring Snow by Mishima). I really like Kaori Ekuni’s novels although I’ve only read two by her – she writes contemporary fiction.

    1. I never heard of Kaori Ekuni. Seems like only one of her books has been translated to English? I’ll keep her in mind, thanks! I think you will like The Waiting Years.

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