Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker
In Osaka in the years immediately before World War II, four aristocratic women try to preserve a way of life that is vanishing.The writing seemed a bit choppy at times, but whether that is due to the original, or the translation, or the fact that it was originally published serially, I don’t know. But I was always eager to get back to the book when I wasn’t reading it and I thoroughly enjoyed this story of four very different sisters.
Tsuruko, the eldest sister, clings obstinately to the prestige of her family name even as her husband prepares to move their household to Tokyo, where that name means nothing. Sachiko compromises valiantly to secure the future of her younger sisters. The unmarried Yukiko is a hostage to her family’s exacting standards, while the spirited Taeko rebels by flinging herself into scandalous romantic alliances. Filled with vignettes of upper-class Japanese life and capturing both the decorum and the heartache of its protagonists, The Makioka Sisters is a classic of international literature.
Commentary at wikipedia calls the story Austenesque, which helped me realise what kept drawing me back to it. Of course it’s set in Japan, and much more modern, and didn’t have Austen’s wonderful witty prose, but it did kind of have an Austen feel to it, with marriage as the main theme, and issues of class and propriety. So while in the background it hinted slightly at the history leading up to WWII, the women were the story.
It seemed to be a realistic glimpse at what life was like then, and I especially enjoyed the references to various customs, some that I knew of, and others that were entirely new to me. Some of the illnesses mentioned in the book were also very interesting. I’d never heard of ‘beriberi’ before, a thiamine deficiency seen primarily in Asian people who rely on white rice as their staple food (the polished rice contains virtually no B1 as the thiamine-rich husk has been removed). And the dark spot over Yukiko’s eye that would come and go in itself wasn’t remarkable, but the fact that it would, according to the doctors, only go away when she was married, was amusing. (She ended up having hormone injections which made it fade considerably).
Overall, a great read and I look forward to reading more by Tanizaki.
I’ve already put Some Prefer Nettles in my basket, which Lotus didn’t like very much but I’m now curious about.
MISC: The original Japanese title, sasame yuki, translates approximately as ‘a light snowfall’ or ‘small snowflakes’.
My Rating: 4.5/5
(Book #8 for 2007; Book #4 for the Classics Challenge; Book #1 for the Chunkster Challenge; and Book #2 for my Japan Challenge)
“The cherries in the Heian Shrine were left to the last because they, of all the cherries in Kyoto, were the most beautiful. Now that the great weeping cherry in Gion was dying and its blossoms were growing paler each year, what was left to stand for the Kyoto spring if not the cherries in the Heian Shrine?”I made a note of this quote because the garden of Heian Jingu (Heian Shrine) is one of my favourite places in Kyoto.