As I’m reading read the passage in Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother about the displeasure of having to share a hospital room divided by a mere curtain, I sit next to my deteriorating grandmother in her own hospital room, silent except for the boisterous chatter of the family next to me. We are separated by a mere curtain.
As a daughter of a Vietnamese refugee currently grappling with the impending death of my own family matriarch, I could not have found a more serendipitous novel to grapple with than Inheritance from Mother. For anyone with a family, Inheritance from Mother will almost certainly pierce those abstruse narratives we create of our own families, and in the best cases, recontextualize those relationships with more intricacy and compassion.
Inheritance from Mother was originally serialized in the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shinbum between 2010 and 2011. It begins with the Katsuras, a family of Japanese women so financially driven and devoid of emotion that acquainting oneself with these characters can border on painful. “How much do we get back from Golden?” is the first line of the novel, “Golden” being the nursing home that the two sisters’ mother has just died in. In any culture this irreverence towards a mother’s death would be shocking, but it’s especially jarring when framed by a family centric culture like Japan’s.
While caring for her dying mother, Mizumura’s main character, Mitsuki, discovers that her husband secretly plans to leave her for another woman. Wretchedness abounds in this family, but Mizumura slowly complicates this image, illustrating the gray area between selfishness and autonomy. “You know what the best part is?” Natsuki, the elder of the two sisters, asks. “Getting free of her while I’m still in my fifties.”
By depicting familial dutifulness as superficial and perfunctory, Mizumura rebels against the conventional notion of the lovingly doting daughter and wife, even as she critiques the shallowness and materialism that those obligations can entail. Reading this novel, I recalled every holiday spent across the country from my family, mired in guilt. My choice to live so far away seemed dismissive to them, even though it was better for my career.
As the novel unfolds, layers of financial hardship and disappointed expectations are revealed between each generation that came before the two sisters, forming an intricate family history of delusion, sacrifice, and resentment. But the second half of the novel ushers in compassion. We slowly discover how each individual’s intentions can be passed down through generations and distorted like a decades-long game of “Telephone,” unintentionally causing just as much pain as it was designed to avoid. Mizumura endows her characters with complexity in a stunningly graceful manner. With each word, I found myself thinking of my own grandmother’s journey, escaping war to America with no money, no education, and six children, the pain of this experience inevitably hardening the whole family. The humbling experience of realizing how little we know about the people in our own lives is a rare and valuable gift.
Mizumura’s depiction of the relationship between eastern and western ideals is one of the most gripping aspects of the novel. Her characters are alternately seduced by the rituals of Japanese tradition and the romance of Western culture—a reverse fetishization and a contemporary response to “Orientalism.” Mizumura writes of Mitsuki, “The higher the floor, that residents lived on, the more impoverished they were—and the closer to the stars. The closer to the stars they lived, the bigger their dreams must be. That’s how it seemed to her.” In the end Mizumura reconciles the two, transforming the inheritance from their mother into a symbol of freedom. Imbued with the weight of the family’s unfulfilled dreams and legacies, the inheritance takes on a deeper significance, and the materialism displayed in the first half of the book is reintroduced in a new light. The money eventually becomes less important than what it means to the sisters.
Mizumura inevitably evokes comparisons to Isabelle Allende and Amy Tan for her focus on strong and resilient female characters, multi-generational families in a culture where family comes first, and dynamics of Western invasion into Eastern traditions. But her work is steeped in self-awareness, brazenly critiquing the traditional structures so integral to her history. Mizumura does not avoid diving head first into those things that leave the deepest scars: death, infidelity, and the surrendering of dreams are where she starts.
My own experience of reading Inheritance from Mother was heightened by the loss in my family. After living through the pain of war and being forcibly removed from their home country as refugees, emotion is not exactly my family’s strong suit. When I started Inheritance from Mother, I simply did not want to feel the emotions that Mizumura was provoking. But day by day, this novel increasingly became another family member for me in the hospital room, allowing me to explore, without judgment, the emotions and memories that death conjures, and to reconnect me to my family’s past.
The concept of “fate” plays a role in Inheritance from Mother, assisting Mitsuki in her journey to acceptance and reconciliation. Mizumura, in giving that awareness of fate to Mitsuki, has also given it to me, precisely when I needed it.