Yuki Means Happiness combines, among other elements, two love stories—one of romantic love, the other of a woman’s love for a child not her own —an exploration of divergent cultural expectations, a warning about the terrifying ease with which we can do damage to each other, in particular, the ease with which parents can do damage to children, an avowal that we can overcome such damage, and a sort of love letter to Tokyo.
Diana, the protagonist, first-person narrator, and guiding voice, is offering her testimony in the early 2000s. About nine years previously, in 1996, she had swapped her job as a nurse in the Boston area for one as a nanny in Tokyo. Her charge was little Yuki Yoshimura. Yuki’s mother, Emi, was no longer living with the father, Naoki. Naoki had custody of Yuki, and hired Diana. Naoki told Diana Emi had left him and Yuki— but was he telling the truth? What would cause a mother to abandon her child?
Diana was meanwhile also assimilating her own feelings for Porter, a man in his late twenties, and a construction manager recently returned to Boston from the Middle East. She had met Porter only six weeks before moving to Tokyo; she was too scarred by events in her own past to trust him as a safe repository for love. She can now see:
I was opting for a new and challenging experience abroad in part to avoid accepting the one—romantic love and its many terrors—that was developing for me at home.
The stories of what will happen between Diana and Porter, and what has happened, and will happen, in the Yoshimura family, intersect and jointly drive the plot. To avoid plot spoilers, I’ll say no more about them.
Every woman should have a Porter in her life; he is generous, patient, understanding, and funny. Likewise, every child should have a Diana. Except in novels of self-conscious first person testimony, it is rash to claim a character is an author’s surrogate. Yuki Means Happiness is perhaps not directly autobiographical, but Diana does seem to speak for Alison Jean Lester. And both of them, character and author, place Yuki exactly where a child should be placed: at the centre of the moral universe. Lester is neither sentimental, nor manipulative, but in her story of a child with an absent mother, there are inevitably heart-breaking moments. Diana remembers giving Yuki a bath, and Yuki asking, in Japanese: are you my mother? Diana comments how she herself, and Naoki, and Naoki’s mother, and his new girlfriend, and also Emi,
were elements in the atmosphere around Yuki. We all had potential to rain on her, to burn her, to freeze her solid.
Lester, and Diana, are always aware of the danger of freezing a child solid, and of the importance of avoiding doing that. This shared awareness of responsibility makes for a moving read, and a thought-provoking one too.
As to the Japanese characters, Yuki, a toddler, is as delightfully enchanting, and as needily demanding, as any other child—and, when it comes to her inner life, just as mysterious. We learn that Naoki’s mother used shaming as a technique for controlling her infant son’s behaviour, but both the adult Naoki and his now-elderly mother, remain elusive, even unknown, as does Emi. Towards the end of the novel, Diana, who has by now established regular contact with Emi, realises Emi is not truly her friend: “not in any of the ways that I understood friend to mean.” This distance between Diana and Emi, and more generally, the reserve with which Lester treats her Japanese characters, seems socially and culturally fitting and respects the unknowability not just of other people, but of other people from a culture not the author’s own.
Lester is good on the details of expat life in Japan. Diana’s mother at one point urges her, over the phone, to register at the embassy, so somebody knows to look for her if Tokyo collapses in an earthquake. This is, I am sure, a conversation most expat women in Tokyo have had with their mothers. Likewise, she emphasises the dislocating effects of time differences between Japan, and other places, including Porter’s new home, Hawaii. Such dislocation is common to expat life.
She is also good on the sensual details of life in Tokyo. Here she is describing eating a baked sweet potato—an extreme of sweetness she’d never previously experienced in a vegetable—as Yuki and her grandmother do the same:
It was unbelievable. It felt like we were sharing a secret, a midnight feast of things children shouldn’t eat, when it was actually just a potato.
As here, Lester’s language is always vivid. New-born Yuki’s abundant hair is described as “full of spring”; When once Diana and Porter met for lunch, he ate a burger “with one hand and gesticulated with the other, expressing with his body as much as with his words that he was a man at loose ends.” A Japanese man is described as being “handsome in the way a superior cut of beef could be handsome.” There are small gems such as these on almost every page.
We even get lessons in simple Japanese, from Yuki asking Mama wa? (What about the mama?) when Diana is reading her We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, to omedetou, the congratulation you offer somebody on their birthday, to itai, it hurts. Then there is the matter of Yuki’s name; we learn yuki really does mean happiness—the same character can also mean snow. As to the name Diana, poor Diana learns from Naoki the closest translation means big hole.
Diana’s and Yuki’s stories both close with hope. Diana’s shows that however damaged we are by our pasts, with hard-won self knowledge, and love, we can overcome the damage, and flourish. And Yuki, now on the threshold of womanhood, is surely equipped to face her future, whatever it may bring.
Lester’s handling of her material is always deft. Overall, Yuki Means Happiness is an enchanting and optimistic novel, which will linger in the mind.