Masatsugu Ono: 森のはずれで (At the Edge of the Woods)
Our unnamed family (only dogs are named in this book), consisting of husband, wife and young son, though the wife is pregnant with a girl, live in a foreign country. Various clues indicate that they are Japanese and the country they live in might be France, though the main clue is in the the name of the dogs, all of which are French.
As the title tells us, they live on the edge of some woods. We see no evidence of either adult having any gainful employment. The boy does not appear to be going to school though he has started to learn how to read. They do not seem to be short of money but there does seem to be some sort of crisis going on, with refugees passing through their town. The crisis may be climate change-related as there is evidence of serious flooding taking place. Like most things in this book, no full explanation is given as to what and where.
By the time the book opens, the wife has decided to return to her home country to have her baby. All three of them flew there and then father and son returned. Initially the son made a huge scene at the airport and they had to abandon their flight (no refund) but all passed smoothly the second time.
Father and son are now alone in the house. The woods seem to be the woods of traditional fairy tales: mysterious, possibly dangerous, inhabited by strange creatures and definitely with a mind of their own. Most of the story is set in and around their house and in the neighbouring town. However, there is one episode, interjected in the middle of the main story, which involves the wife travelling by train to a neighbouring country. There is a strange woman sitting next to her, talking on her phone to someone. It seems the woman had been caring for her mother but now needed a break and her mother had complained to the person on the other end of the phone about her daughter. She’s said I’ve been running away from her since before I was born… The idea that I tried to escape from her womb is ridiculous… She wanted to leave me behind and take off somewhere… I hung on tight to the umbilical cord and wouldn’t let go. This issue of childbirth and mother-child attachment is a recurrent theme in this book. The mother will arrive in a foreign county where she does not speak the language. In the immigration queue she will see an old woman trying to breast-feed a baby and failing so the wife takes over. We never learn what subsequently happens.
However, most of the book concerns the house at the edge of the woods. The first issue is strange sounds coming from the woods. When the three of them and, later, father and son enter the woods, the trees come alive and follow them and communicate with one another. Though there are no leaves on the trees, leaves seem to be falling. Eventually the wood becomes too thick to penetrate.
However it is the sound he continues to notice, particularly at night. It was the sound someone makes who’s sick at heart. A sound like coughing….it was trying to strangle my heart, too. Whenever the sound occur the sleeping boy couldn’t help wriggling under the sheets like a segment of earthworm.
Other strange things happen. Things disappear. Someone (or something) places props under the branches of the old apple tree. One day the boy brings in an old woman he has encountered. She might have come from the castle. There is a ruined building in the woods known as the castle. It was used as the headquarters of the Resistance during the war. She tells her tale, again involving a mother-child relationship. Her husband was in the army she walked many miles, got him out the barracks and made him have sex with her. They had a son. Now she is alone, scantily clothed and incontinent. The father goes to buy her incontinence pads but when he returns, she has gone and the boy first says she went home and then later denies all knowledge of her.
There are a host of other strange goings-on. The forest is clearly inhabited by imps. The local farmer and the local postman both confirm this. They steal things, including people, though it seems that the farmer’s mother had used them as an excuse when first she had a miscarriage when obviously pregnant and then when her eldest son was killed by the enemy. The postman blames missing letters on the imps. Vermin. They’re vermin, I tell you! Why doesn’t anybody speak up? They’re still here, I tell you! The woods are crawling with them, I tell you! They’re dangerous, I tell you! Why doesn’t anybody do anything? It’s more than the mail. They’re trying to steal the inside of our heads!
Conditions get worse and the son seems to be stealing things. They had briefly had a rescue dog which had been very abused and was therefore very fearful of humans. He was called Battu (i.e. Beaten. He ran away. Was the son helping the dog or humans? The father finds a body in the wood, probably of one of the refugees. Has his son been helping this person? It gets more peculiar when two dwarfs turn up at the door.
As well as strange happenings in and around the woods, the son seems to be behaving strangely. My son was using fewer and fewer words, conveying his thoughts more and more through gestures and facial expressions. He seemed to be regressing into infancy.
I have touched on a few of the oddities in this book. The woods, the wife’s journey, the events in the unspecified country where they are living, the son’s erratic behaviour, the way events affecting one person are mirrored in another person, the way people come and go and behave strangely, all of these make for a decidedly mysterious story. Japan, of course, has a long tradition of ghostly stories, both in literature and cinema and it is clear that Masatsugu Ono: is well within this tradition. It certainly is a clever and well-written book and one thoroughly enjoyable to read.
First published in 2006 by Bungei Shunjū
First English translation in 2022 by Two Lines Press
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter