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“The Twilight Years” by Sawako Ariyoshi

Translated from the Japanese by Mildred Tahara

First published in Japan in 1972, Sawako Ariyoshi’s novel, The Twilight Years was not translated into English for almost a decade. It is very much a period piece, beautifully written and faithfully translated, albeit a little dated in terms of its outlook and attitude. The novel’s main protagonist is Kyoko, a middle-aged woman who lives with her husband and teenage son in a small house in Tokyo. Her elderly in-laws live in a purpose built bungalow on the other side of the yard, although she is not particularly close to them. This changes when her mother-in-law dies unexpectedly and her father-in-law begins acting strangely. Shigezo is diagnosed with senile dementia and becomes increasingly dependent upon his daughter-in-law for care and support.

The writing is exquisite. Ariyoshi gives us a stunning snapshot of family dynamics in a modern 1960s middle class home. The novel says as much about changing attitudes to the role of women as it does about how dementia is viewed. Kyoko is expected to be solely responsible for her father-in-law’s care, including sleeping in the same room as him once he begins to wander off, bathing, toileting and feeding him. She’s also responsible for maintaining the house and feeding her family and still must manage to hold down a day job. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a portrait of a different time as I found the men’s attitudes so utterly deplorable. There is no sense of sharing responsibility for elderly care. Looking after the sick and ageing is not considered a worthy role for a man.

There’s also no question of bringing in outside help. Shigezo is not eligible for regular caring support. The specialised residential care units are all oversubscribed. His only option is a horrific-sounding mental hospital, although Kyoko is advised to avoid this option. She’s repeatedly reminded that an older person should be looked after at home by his relatives. There’s an interesting paradox at work in this novel. Older people are to be respected. Their families must honour them by caring for them in their final years. And yet, the rhetoric around ageing is quite disturbing. As the average life expectancy rises in Japan, the younger people are horrified by the reality of growing old. Shigezo is described as a burden and disgusting and on several occasions, younger members of his family express the belief that they’d rather kill themselves than end up living as he lives. At times these passages make quite hard reading. The Twilight Years is a testament to a different time. The protagonists are many years away from understanding the complexities of dementia or how a person might live well with the illness.

However, it’s not an entirely depressing novel. There are moments of simple beauty and times when we’re given an insight into more positive aspects of elderly life in Japan. I also loved the way Shigezo’s relationship with his daughter-in-law progresses and changes throughout the novel. Kyoko has always disliked and distrusted the old man but as her caring responsibilities place her in intimate proximity to him she slowly begins to form a connection and by the time he finally passes away, is incredibly fond of her father-in-law.

The Twilight Years was published by Peter Owen: London in 1984 

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