Who owns our history? Whose version are we to believe and is history written by the victors, the survivors or their descendants? Kyoko Nakajima, in her Naoki prize winning book The Little House, gives us pause for thought as we follow the life of Taki a maid in the service of the Harai family in Tokyo.
In this multi-layered beautifully crafted novel, she skilfully weaves together the story of the lives of a Japanese family during the second world war with a clandestine love affair seen through the eyes of Taki.
On the back of her bestselling ‘Granny Taki’s Super Housework Book’ Taki’s publisher urges the retired housemaid to write about Tokyo in the old days. Taki however has other ideas and proceeds to document her own life story focusing on the most pivotal and arguably the most formative years of her life during her service with Mistress Tokiko. Aged 14,having arrived in Tokyo a year earlier from a rural village in northern Japan, Taki is immediately charmed by her 22 year old mistress, who treats her with the utmost respect. ‘The first words she uttered to me were, “Taki and Tokiko…our names are quite similar aren’t they?”’ The contentment, harmony and trust in their relationship continues as their life experiences evolve. Tokiko having been widowed after a very short and troubled first marriage, settles into her second marriage to the kinder and more compassionate Mr Harai.His promise to build a new Western style house with a red tile roof clinches the marriage proposal for Tokiko and it’s all that both Tokiko and Taki could’ve imagined. The only threat to Taki’s perfect life is the prospect of her own marriage which would take her away from her beloved mistress and the little house. Until that is the arrival of a young student, Mr Itakara. The year is 1938. As war begins to affect all of their lives, so does the presence of the talented manga artist Mr Itakara. Taki has a choice to make, one which reveals itself to be the driving force behind the story being told.
The author takes us back and forth between Taki’s narration of her past memories and the present day with Takeshi, her nephews son commenting on her recollections, mostly with incredulity. How could they possibly be celebrating in Tokyo whilst a massacre had taken place in Nanking! More often than not he vehemently disputed her recollections claiming that she was ‘going senile’.
As we reach the final chapter of the book, desperate to find out the fate of the characters the tone of the book changes. Narrated by Takeshi the mystery of the fate of the characters morphs into piecing together the mysteries of the past and ultimately how what we believe to be true is coloured by evidence: evidence unearthed, evidence being presented as a truth and ultimately evidence deliberately buried and possibly never seen. For us the reader and with the benefit of hindsight, we know that there is only person presenting the truth, albeit cryptically.
Kyoko’s storytelling imagines what it was like to live through such momentous times, evoking a sense of naivety of the gravity of events only paying attention when it affected their lives. Until 1938 the war with China was perceived as an irritation getting in the way of Tokiko’s frivolousness and Master Hirai’s business. Kyoko expertly explores how the war gradually infiltrates the lives of affluent citizens in the capital city, their frustrations, concerns and discussions that were commonplace to try and understand the unfolding events.
On one level it could be read as a cautionary tale. Ordinary people can be led into war by those in power fuelled by propaganda and nationalism gradually seeping into daily life and discourse.
Propaganda infiltrates the lives of Taki and her mistress through articles in the Housewives Digest edited by Tokiko’s trusted friend. Nationalist fervour is in full force withthe introduction of Patriotic Services Day in 1939 and celebrations for the Empires 2600thAnniversary in 1940 including an Art Exhibition and an international concert. Who wouldn’twant to attend and be reminded of the eternal greatness of their nation as the world seems to be turning against them? The cancellation of the proposed 1940 Japan Olympics had after all taken them by surprise. As the war progresses, the ramifications of wounded pride coupled with the escalation and distortion of facts are hinted at. The impact on Tokiko’s son, Kyo, seems almost inevitable.
The refusal to interrogate what we are being told and establishing the facts for ourselves contribute to a complacency which ultimately history will judge us by. Indeed, the structure of the book, alternating between Taki’s recollections and Takeshi’s commentary is a tool to examine the conflict between those who lived through a significant and horrific world event and how descendants come to terms with the deeds of their forefathers.
Heart wrenching and tragic, this is a book for anyone interested in the psychology of war propaganda, how the events of the war affected the Japanese civilian population and the representation of a history, personal and national, that’s full of regrets. How do we piece together the mysteries of the past and ultimately who knows the truth? Who can we rely on to show us the truth and how will it manifest itself? It’s also a story about love in all its forms and loyalty. No plot spoilers here, but the revelation at the end of the novel is well worth the wait.