Book Review – The Laws of Evening

By: Randolph Giudice
Oahu Island News

The characters in The Laws of Evening, Mary Yukari Waters’ short story collection about post-war Japan, excel at taking things in stride. Amidst hardship, loss of life, and the ultimate Westernization of their country after World War II, the protagonists in these elegant stories manage to keep up appearances.

Beyond contending with the devastating effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the post-war reconstruction forced the Japanese people to come to grips with the fact that their future government would ultimately be fashioned by their conquerors. Now confronted, as Waters puts it, by an “American government, which has switched with dizzying speed, from enemy to ally”, these stories center on themes of transcendence, displaying the fortitude of the Japanese people.

Donald Richie, the West’s foremost expert on Japan, has said that the Japanese mind reminds him most “of the Japanese garden, which is a place that nature plainly made but which man has just as plainly ordered.” Thus, Japanese culture, while ordering nature, never quite escapes it. Appropriately, the lion’s share of Waters’ stories takes place under shade trees, in gardens, free spaces for the energies of day to transform into the meditations of evening.

In the story, “Since They Burned My House Down,” a Japanese mother must contend with Western forces all around her; not only is she being removed from her kitchen, her grandson is turning American right before her eyes. Forks and knives glisten among her daughter-in-law’s “English china with the malevolence of surgical instruments.” Finding herself hemmed in by the “vaguely threatening” whiff of American tomato sauce, she is surrounded by Western customs she cannot understand. In the charming story, “Egg-face”, a young, traditional Japanese woman with no prospects is fixed up on a date with an attractive Japanese man who is so American that he is unrecognizable. In the haunting “Kami”, a woman who has lost one husband to war, and one to cancer, is obsessed with staying happy in the face of old age and a changing country. In the “Laws of Evening”, Mrs. Kimura, a housewife, realizes that her life has been wasted. Revelations in these fictions arrive with the departure of the sun: “She recognized in this evening the quicksilver quality, the shifting groundlessness, of her dreams. And it seemed to her that here was life’s essence, revealed as it never could be in the level light of day.”

In a classic Taoist parable, a father imparts wisdom to his son by teaching him to live with both tragedy and good fortune. When the son breaks his leg after falling from his horse he is inconsolable. “How unfortunate I am!” he shouts. His father smiles and says: “We will see.” Later, because of his injury, the boy avoids being drafted into a war that takes the lives of all his friends. “How fortunate I am!” the boy declares. “We will see,” says his father. After going on like this for an allegorical eternity, the son finally learns to accept all life’s offerings, good and bad.

One character in this wonderful collection captures this sentiment even more clearly, recalling the simple words of a childhood poem: “Since my house burned down, I now own a better view of the rising moon.”

The Laws of Evening, by MaryYukari Waters
Scribner, 177 pages