Lee Langley

The trials of a Tokyo housewife: Mild Vertigo, by Mieko Kanai, reviewed

Life in a comfortable modern flat with her husband and two young sons leaves Natsumi so depressed she thinks she’s losing her mind

Mieko Kanai

Natsumi lives in a modern flat in Tokyo with her husband and two young sons, her life comfortable but circumscribed by the tedium of household chores. Washing dishes in the sink, she finds herself transfixed, gazing at the ‘rope of water’ falling from the tap, twisting like a snake: ‘There was something Sisyphean in the nature of the roster of simple domestic tasks… never an end in sight.’ Things are at once too easy and too much for her; the kitchen is so perfect she hesitates to spoil its pristine condition and ends up buying ready-cooked meals, her life shrunk to what seems stifling captivity.  

She memorises the layout of the super-market and makes notes: ‘Fish Day specials: tuna or red snapper or yellow-tail or octopus sashimi.’ She lists every artefact in the utility room, gossips with neighbours and has an awkward dinner with old girlfriends, all of whom have jobs. Throughout the novel her inner monologue is the instrument of narration. She’s the woman in a Hopper painting – by a window, at a café table, in a bar, a picture of isolation. What is she thinking? Natsumi might know: ‘This is what happens when you become…a housewife, you have this feeling of déjà vu that leaves you nauseous and dizzy.’ Not overtly tragic, she seems to have lost her identity, and thinks she may be losing her mind.

Mieko Kanai, a novelist, critic and author of more than 30 books, has long enjoyed a cult following in Japan. Published 25 years ago there, Mild Vertigo is only now available in English, in Polly Barton’s sinuous translation, the pages casually scattered with enough Japanese words to remind us of the otherness of what could seem a familiar situation.

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