by Ruri Pilgrim
Around the World: Japan
How Obtained: second hand book sale
In Fish of the Seto Inland Sea, Ruri Pilgrim creates a labour of love for her mother by writing the story of her family.It starts with her mother’s grandmother as she is about to get married in the 1870s, when tradition and class bind the Japanese people into a regular known way of living. They remember the time of the Samurai respectfully and fondly, and family is everything. As time goes on, changes come: modernisation, war, maniacal patriotism, the threat/influence of socialism, defeat, poverty of a nation, and the beginnings of gradual rebuilding. The family changes too- old, rich families lose their fortunes, marry the lower classes, marry for love rather than ‘suitability’ as deemed by the parents, the lines between neighbours of different classes blur, but the ties between family weaken.
This book was intended to tell the true history of Ruri’s family, but she found herself up against a brick wall when it came to trying to find out all the details, so she took the key elements, and historical knowledge of life in different times in Japan, and created a fictionalised version. This works really well in this book. The prose is flowing without the harshness which some works get when trying to cram facts in. What I think she did really well, was to give an idea of the social changes in Japan and the impact of the war, not by talking about them directly, but by telling about an incident in a characters life from their point of view. We see the horrible harshness of the war through the parents whose children die overseas ‘for the glory of the Emperor’, in the story of a mother who became a refugee at the end of the war and had to walk for days to safety with her baby dying on her back, in the lack of food and work… We see the shift in societies boundaries when all grown up, the main character and a lower class employee of the family from when she was a teenager (who wasn’t even allowed to talk to her back then) meet in a jewellery shop- he is now a success and buying lots of jewellery- and they eat dinner together.
A fairly large amount of the book takes place during the war years, so it is a little depressing at times. But overall it is very readable, and I feel like I learnt quite a bit about life in Japan over the past hundred or so years.
In some ways, there wasn’t really an end point. The story could have gone on to follow Ruri’s mother as the emigrated from Japan to live with her. That would have been interesting too. Fittingly, it ends with a sense of the perpetuity of life.
‘you came on the right day. The blossom will be gone tomorrow. When the time comes, the flowers never linger.’
‘Isn’t it marvellous when the flowers go, the young leaves are just ready to unfurl’