All told I’m in three different book clubs, to whom I have varying levels of allegiance. At one end of the spectrum there’s the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club, to which I am more or less firmly committed and which accounts for around 25% of my annual book consumption. One step below that is the neighborhood dinner and book club, which I abstain from attending during The Season at work, but whose selections I often read on my own because I’m otherwise not plugged in to new, or at least recent, Swedish releases. At the other end of the spectrum is the ultra casual “buddy read” group in one of my Discord servers, which I usually ignore unless I’ve already read the book. Such was the case with Light From Uncommon Stars, which was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick for November and then a Discord buddy read for December, meaning this was the rare occasion I was part of the Discord book chat and witness to the process of selecting the next buddy ready book.
That was a long preamble to say, “I read Hiroko Oyamada’s Weasels in the Attic because it was a book club read for a book club I don’t normally attend.”
I also read it because it was short, because as a translator I appreciate reading works in translation, and because it sounded intriguing. It’s hard, even, to decide between classing it as a novella or as a short story collection. We have the same characters throughout, all riffing on the theme of indifference, or even antipathy, towards parenthood, but their only common thread is the same narrator. Each story? chapter? on its own feels a bit unearthly: deliberately flat and almost imagist, where the point isn’t a clever plot or character development but just the mood of the scene.
The word “sinister” comes up in different reviews of the book, but maybe a better word would be “uneasy.” You get that horror movie knot in your stomach, but the other shoe never drops. The narrator’s friends, Urabe and Saiki don’t come across as great husbands, or even decent men, but the narrative doesn’t stick around long enough to confirm or deny those allegations. It’s possible that the young, vulnerable girl Urabe caught eating his stock of fish food is now his wife, but then again, maybe she isn’t. We don’t find out either way. Both of them boss their (significantly) younger wives around and do very little to help in entertaining their guests, but things fail to rise about the level of the inconsiderate to demeaning or abusive. Likewise, the infants in the story are not particularly cuddly or even robust creatures, and in the stories where they appear you have the sense that they’re not going to survive until the end of the chapter (but they do).
If great art, according to Aristotle, is supposed to elicit some sense of catharsis in its audience, then he would have hated this book. (We’ll pretend for a minute that he would have understood the context of modern suburban Japan.) Oyamada shows you a few uncomfortable scenes and then leaves. The result is unsettling.
Did I like it? Hard to say. But it’s so short and goes so quickly—I read it cover to cover before I rolled out of bed one Saturday morning—that I’m not mad I read it, either.
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