A Personal Mountain

A 21-YEAR-OLD unmarried woman, pregnant from a casual encounter, decides, against her family's wishes, to have and keep her baby. The story is not at all that unusual, but it is certainly fraught with enough dramatic potential to make a novel. All the more so when the story is set in Japan, where the national illegitimacy rate in 1980, the year this novel was written, was a mere 0.8 percent, compared with the United States rate of 18.4 percent. And in Japanese society, abortion is so commonplace that the mother of the young woman in the story asks her if maybe it wasn't the few sessions of Christian Sunday School she attended years ago that influenced her decision.

Takiko Odaka, the heroine of ``Woman Running in the Mountains,'' does not seem to have any clear idea of what she is doing or why.

Indeed, she is far from being a ``heroine'' of any kind. She is not even, in the usual sense, a rebel. She is simply a young woman who becomes pregnant from following her impulses and who, following the same tendency to let nature take its course, allows the baby to be born. Motherhood is something that happens to her, slowly changing her perceptions in ways she had not foreseen.

Takiko lives with her parents and a younger brother still in high school. Her father no longer works on account of a lame leg. Her mother supplements his pension with money she earns as a dressmaker.

Even before the addition of Takiko's infant son, Akira, the house is overcrowded, airless, and filled with tension. Takiko's mother is deeply ashamed of her pregnant daughter, while her irascible, hard-drinking father is wont to take out his frustrations by hitting Takiko, who hits him back. Only after her pregnancy becomes very obvious do these father-daughter fistfights subside somewhat. But only somewhat.

What Takiko has going for her is a surprising stubbornness: a blend of passive resistance and dogged determination that enables her to pull through. She manages to find a hospital, enroll her infant son at a day-care center, and get herself a succession of jobs, all without much support - moral or material - from her family and without the advance planning done by other prospective parents. Life for a lower-middle-class family is hard enough, as shown in this novel, even for those who have taken greater care to plan for the future than Takiko has.

Until the birth of her child, Takiko had simply assumed that wanting to work was all that was needed to find a job. Now, as she shifts from a job at a restaurant that leaves little time for her baby to the still less profitable routine of trying to sell cosmetics door-to-door, before finding a place at a plant nursery, Takiko is brought face-to-face with life's uncertainties.

Against the background of a society that may strike American readers as not all that dissimilar to the US - high prices, low wages, some government support but no real safety net, a disapproval for illegitimacy that stops well short of ostracism - Y"uko Tsushima, well known in Japan for her fiction and her literary criticism, creates a novel that focuses on the subtle fluctuations of mood and the slow alterations in attitude that occur in her heroine's mind and heart.

This is not to suggest, however, that ``Woman Running in the Mountains'' is the heartwarming, edifying tale of a woman who learns about responsibility and caring through the experience of having a child. Takiko remains a rather nebulous, confused young woman.

Nor, I suspect, is this lack of definition entirely attributable to differences between Eastern and Western ideas of character development. Tsushima has deliberately chosen as her heroine a woman of no particular distinctiveness: a kind of Everywoman. The intention may have been to make her predicament seem universal; but the result is a little flat and flavorless.

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