Inheritance from Mother by Minae Mizumura

Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

Two sisters struggle to deal with their domineering mother’s illness even as they reflect their own life choices. 

Author info

Minae Mizumura was born in Tokyo, moved to New York at the age of 12 and studied French literature at Yale University. Mizumura has won major literary awards for all four of her novels.

Juliet Winters Carpenter studied Japanese literature at the University of Michigan and the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Tokyo. In 1980, Carpenter’s translation of Abe Kobo’s novel Secret Rendezvous (Mikkai) won the Japan–United States Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature.

How does a woman come to terms with her mother’s death, especially when her mother’s love has always been conditional and often cruel? This is the struggle that faces the two sisters in Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother. The story opens with a chapter titled, “The Long Telephone Call in Lieu of a Wake.” The sisters have a whispered conversation about how much money they can get back from the group home where their mother once lived—Natsuki speaks while hiding from her husband and daughter in her sound-proofed piano room, Mitsuki alone in her house while her husband is away on business in Vietnam. and her relationship with both daughters was so strained that Mitsuki recalls how, when the waiting room, thinking: “Mother is dying. My mother is dying. Finally she’s going to die.”

 In fact, Noriko doesn’t die until months later, and the emotional and nancial cost of that long, drawn-out illness takes its toll on both sisters, especially Mitsuki. But during that rst trip to the ER, Mitsuki is convinced that Noriko’s on her deathbed, and the words become a dark, persistent refrain in her life, a shameful wish she can only share with her younger sister, Natsuki. The sisters are close despite (or perhaps because of) Noriko’s manipulative, competitive mothering style. As a child, Natsuki was the favourite because she was beautiful. Noriko trained her to become a pianist and marry wealthy. But when Natsuki falls out of favour Noriko begins to dote on Mitsuki. Mitsuki is in frail health, her marriage is in trouble and she’s unhappy in her job translating French patents. When her mother’s health begins to deteriorate, Mitsuki bears the burden of all the hospital visits, even as she deals with her own poor health. And to make matters worse, one day Mitsuki stumbles upon evidence that her husband is cheating on her. Again.

Mitsuki met her husband in Paris when they were both college students studying abroad, and when Tetsuo proposed to her in ickering candlelight in his shabby apartment, Mitsuki thought he was the perfect match for her romantic, artistic soul. But there were warning signs early on, signs she ignored for years.

While Mitsuki was content to live a modest life full of art and literature, Tetsuo was obsessed with the idea of moving into a high-priced condo in the most fashionable part of Tokyo, and of the fame he increasingly received as a dashing professor and scholarly author. Mitsuki stayed with him, repeatedly putting her own desires on hold—she turned down a dream job from a mentor to write a new translation of Madame Bovary because it didn’t pay well—in order to help him achieve his.

Mitsuki discovers Tetsuo’s betrayal just as Noriko’s illness is ramping up into crisis mode, and she’s faced with a storm of feelings for the two people in her life who o er the cruelest forms of love. Mitsuki deals with Noriko with help from her younger sister, but ultimately decides that she must face the crisis in her own marriage alone—or at least, that’s her intention. The book is a sweeping saga that explores troubled families, class anxieties and, most of all, the struggle to be an independent woman in contemporary Japan.

More from Minae Mizumura

03-2A True Novel 

1960s New York: Taro, an ambitious immigrant, tries to overcome his past as a poor orphan and develops a lifelong obsession with a rich girl.

02-2The Fall of Language in the Age of English 

In this controversial essay collection, Mizumura warns against losing linguistic diversity in a world dominated by the universal language of English.