Fumiko Enchi’s novel, The Waiting Years, is one that supposedly took her eight years to write. With the many number of great male Japanese writers, one could easily despair with regards to the rarity of female perspectives, but fortunately, Enchi has written a good novel—good enough to add to the canon of Japanese literature. While I don’t believe The Waiting Years to be a great novel, it is certainly one that shouldn’t be overlooked.
The story centers on a wife named Tomo, and follows through the aching years of her marriage until her death. I use the word “wife” because Tomo is ultimately a wife first, then mother, and then maybe a woman last. Her tale involves the humiliation she must endure upon choosing a mistress for her husband. At first, she chooses the 15-year-old Suga, who is invited into their home under the pretense that she will become their maid. Suga is quiet and introspective, and builds not only a relationship with the husband (Yukitomo) and Tomo, but also with their young daughter, Etsuko.
This is not a tale involving female cattiness, since in fact, the women all seem to get along well together, for the most part. Early on, however, we are told of Tomo’s feelings, of which she never expresses outwardly: “Yet and inborn hatred of compromise made her impose upon herself a strict rule of conduct that gave first importance in everything to husband and family, and she supervised the daily affairs of their household with a meticulous care that was beyond criticism.”
The use of the word “compromise” is an indication of the poor way in which wives of Tomo’s rank are regarded, in that ultimately they must sacrifice for their husbands’ satisfaction, even when the cost is their own happiness. Because Tomo was born into a low-ranking samurai family and married young (pre Meiji Restoration), means that she must tolerate the old style culture traditions, where women are not offered the opportunity of proper education that would otherwise allow them to fall into the category of accomplished or well-bred.
As the novel progresses, we watch Tomo suppress her hurt and disillusionment. She is forced to care for her husband’s 15-year-old mistress, while at the same time observe the young girl becoming a part of their family: “She must be responsible for everything, even the future security of the woman who was presumably to deprive her of her husband’s love. Occasionally she would smile a lonely smile at the irony of her lot. At such times she could slip free of the bonds in which she was entangled and, however briefly, survey herself and her husband, Suga and Etsuko, with the same dispassionate gaze.”
Eventually, years progress and Yukitomo takes on other mistresses. Another girl named Yuri moves in, and the outgoing nature of her personality causes her to form a strong bond to the first mistress, Suga. The two become close friends over a ten-year period and even wonder if they were sisters in a previous life. However, when Yuri decides to marry another man, Suga is left alone not only missing her close friend but also having to watch while another mistress is added to the lot, this time a young, flirtatious girl named Miya. There is a sad scene when Yukitomo concludes that Suga could never marry since she is by now too old and likely will never have children due to her irregular periods. Instead, he notes that his preference is to have Suga remain to look after his wife, Tomo.
The Waiting Years contains all the ingredients for a great novel but a few things keep it from achieving it. For one thing, after having read several novels by Yasunari Kawabata and seeing the layering and complexity he adds to his characters, it’s easy for a reader to become spoiled. There are a number of instances where Enchi could have probed deeper into the human psyche than she does, and also the few moments of clichés noted in the text, either due to Enchi herself or her translator, John Bester, only works against her lyricism.
Furthermore, although many years pass, many of the characters are not fully explored to the degree they could be. This does not mean that some characters are not well developed, just that it is possible that the novel’s brevity works against itself. Likewise, Yukitomo comes across as unsympathetic throughout the tale and it’s not until the very end that we see he actually has emotion in him. He’s not an evil or a bad person, just typically reserved.
With the end of the Meiji Era came the transitions into Modernization. These transitions offered many benefits to women, yet did not come without sort-term sacrifice and struggle. It’s difficult for any culture to accept change, and after reading The Waiting Years, readers will see just what this culture, and its women, especially, were waiting for. The women in this novel are, in a sense, within their own sort of stasis—they are bound to their husbands regardless of their own reluctance or trepidation when it comes to accepting what their husbands’ desire, even if that desire is for several concubines.