In an unnamed country, an immigrant family has taken refuge for reasons never quite explained. The narrator’s wife has returned home to give birth to the couple’s second child. The narrator and his son are left to their own devices, poised at the edge of a sinister forest full of whispers and imps that may or may not exist.
Time stretches on. The narrator’s wife doesn’t return. Slowly, his son loses his ability to speak. Even so, he transmits memories from the time he was in his mother’s womb and brings home a mysterious, naked crone.
At the Edge of the Woods may feel familiar to readers of contemporary Japanese fiction in English translation. It contains some of the same surrealist elements as Haruki Murakami’s novels, including the small people who populate books like 1Q84 and Killing Commendatore.
Matasugu Ono’s writing is also reminiscent of Hiroko Oyamada’s in her atmospheric novels The Factory and The Hole, translated into English by David Boyd. In At the Edge of the Woods, translator Juliet Winters Carpenter captures Ono’s narrator’s deep, existential terror. For example, this is how the narrator describes the ominous noises in the woods:
Then, for the first time, I thought I knew what the sound was. No wonder it made my heart ache. It was the sound someone makes who’s sick at heart. A sound like coughing. A rope tied unevenly in knots, trying to strangle you from the inside.
In all three works, eerie figures loom at the corners of the reader’s subconscious as she struggles to keep creeping panic at bay. And in all three, the uncanny monsters—crows, dogs, or imps—stand in for very real dangers.
The terrors in Ono’s world seem unfamiliar and strange. Until they don’t. Like an image that slowly resolves into focus, the occasional appearance of people in unexpected places becomes a full blown refugee crisis like the ones that rock the contemporary world. The narrator is paralyzed by the tide of displaced people, “continuous and thick”, rushing past his remote home. He cannot help them; he cannot even speak to them in a language they can understand.
No single disaster drives these refugees. Violence. Climate change. Other people’s greed. At the Edge of the Woods puts these realities of the contemporary world on full display and presents them as what they are—horrors. It reads like a horror novel or a supernatural thriller because it plunges the reader into her own helplessness in the face of the mass suffering of other people. The reader shares the narrator’s powerlessness:
Sometimes I had the urge to run away, though where could I run to? Perhaps it was that feeling that had caused me to stumble, lost, into this world riddled with masses of people so disconsolate. Yet I was not lost. I alone was not lost. I still had a home to go to. These people no longer had a home and were forced to wander, lost, forever. They had been promised nothing—or were fleeing because of broken promises. Among people thus betrayed, I was now breaking a promise. In my case, to run away was to renege on a promise.
Throughout the novel, motherhood is an appropriate, if complicated, central metaphor. Sometimes the novel lauds motherhood, and the narrative is a commentary on how it is disrupted by forced displacement. For example, the narrator’s wife feels compelled to apologize to her unborn son for the trauma she couldn’t protect him from, even within her own body: “Addressing her belly, she whisper[s], ‘I’m sorry I made you see that, it was terrible.’” At other times, pregnancy takes on its own sinister malignancy, as when the narrator finds a pregnant woman’s body in the woods. Her belly, “like a beast that captures its prey”, seems to have attacked and killed her. But most prominently, the novel questions motherhood itself. What is actually gained by separating a child from its mother through the act of birth? What can ever compensate the child for that loss?
Toward the end of At the Edge of the Woods, the narrator hints that there may, indeed, be hope for the world of the novel. Something may be able to grow again from the mud trodden under refugees’ feet. No matter how hard he tries to poison it, the narrator cannot stop a dead stump from sprouting new branches. But whereas death is inevitable, hope is only a subtle and tantalizing possibility: