The narrator of Hiroko Oyamada’s Weasels in the Attic wants to start a family with his wife. They’ve been together for three years, but they haven’t had any luck. Meanwhile, it has been getting more and more difficult to see other people their age with kids of their own.
One night his wife asks him, “On a scale of one to ten, how badly do you want kids?”
The narrator has no idea how to answer: “Man. What can you even say to that?”
Each of Weasels’s three sections are encounters between the central couple and two friends who have been able to start families. In typical Oyamada style, these encounters are unexpected—not bizarre, but on the outer edge of plausible.
One friend lives above a defunct store for exotic fish and aquarium supplies. The other lives in a country house with a weasel infestation and a room full of scleropages jardinii.
Oyamada drops hints that something about these friends and their homes is vaguely sinister. She’s a writer who skates uncomfortable facts over the skin of her readers. She never brings readers the relief of looking at a problem straight on—and of course she never resolves a thing.
One mother, for example, is much younger than her partner. The reader is left with questions about just how much younger she is and just how free she was to choose the relationship. Another mother never updates her partner about his fertility status after a sperm count test. When she gets pregnant, the reader, too, is left unanswered questions.
The end result is that Weasels in the Attic is a disquieting meditation on motherhood in Japan—a shrinking society where heavily gendered expectations for parents endure.
It is notable that Oyamada has chosen to write Weasels from a man’s perspective. (After The Factory and The Hole, Weasels is Oyamada’s third full-length title to be translated into English. The Factory has both male and female narrators. The Hole is narrated by a woman.) Weasels is a novella about motherhood, but from a man’s perspective. Oyamada has taken up infertility, but asks, “What is it like for the male partner when a couple can’t get pregnant?”
Late in the novella, the narrator and his friend’s wife have a conversation about the different expectations of men and women surrounding parenthood and babies:
“I’m shocked,” I growled. The Saiki [the narrator’s friend] I knew wasn’t the type who voluntarily took care of any child—even his own. I was pretty sure he didn’t like kids. “Didn’t know he had it in him.”
“It isn’t like that for women… Every baby is adorable to us… Maybe it’s different for men. They only see their own babies that way. Sorry, I shouldn’t have…” Yoko looked at me and held one hand over her mouth.
“No,” I said. “Anyway, I think you’re right. Maybe it doesn’t affect us the same way. Maybe it should, but…”
The implication is obviously that the narrator, like other men, isn’t heavily invested in children. The impetus to start a family must come from the narrator’s wife. But although he has kept his feelings to himself to spare her, the narrator is just as eager to become a father as she is to become a mother. He doesn’t answer her question about “the scale from one to ten”, but he does think about it: “I liked kids. I wished I could have one of my own. I couldn’t give it a number, but I knew it was what I wanted.”
Perhaps Weasels is an even more notable meditation on parenthood in the context of other books in translation from Japanese that have been published in English this year. There have been quite a number; parenthood might even be described as one of this year’s overarching themes for Japanese books in translation.
At the Edge of the Woods by Masatsugu Ono, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, is about a father parenting through an apocalypse in the absence of his pregnant wife. Alternatively, Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi, translated (like Weasels) by David Boyd and co-translated by Lucy North, is about a woman who fakes a pregnancy to escape sexist expectations at work. Slated for release later this year, The Thorn Puller by Hiromi Ito, translated by Jeffrey Angles, is about a mother juggling children in the US and parents in Japan. Writing about parenthood isn’t new, of course: Woman Running in the Mountains by Yuko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt, is an important four-decade-old novel about single motherhood reissued earlier this year.
All three of Oyamada’s full-length English-language titles have been translated by the inestimable David Boyd. The Factory and The Hole were both published in Japan in the early 2010s—The Hole won Japan’s highly-coveted Akutagawa Prize in 2013. Although the themes and storylines of The Factory and The Hole are different, the two novels have a lot in common. They share what an earlier ARB review called “profoundly atmospheric writing” that “invites in a kind of existential dread.” Oyamada is also famous for ponderous sentences and weighty, unbroken paragraphs. Boyd chose to honor both of those characteristics in his translations.
Weasels reads differently than her earlier work in English. The sentences are shorter. There are far more paragraph breaks. And while still surreal, the tone of the novella is far less haunted. The overall effect is a book that is easier to read than Oyamada’s other titles.
At only ninety-six pages, Weasels in the Attic is an eminently approachable book. It’s an inviting, low-commitment introduction to Japanese literature by Millennial writers. (Oyamada was born in 1983.) It’s a fine, understated work of contemporary cultural commentary. And it’s a goosepimple-worthy October read for “Spooktober”. Above all, though, Oyamada is an excellent writer whose work justifies her growing reputation in and outside of Japan.