Award winning author Hiroko Oyamada’s newest book, Weasels in The Attic, is a short 71 page read translated by David Boyd. It follows the life of the unnamed narrator and his wife (also unnamed, referred to throughout as ‘my wife’), who are trying unsuccessfully to conceive a child. The novella is split into three interconnecting stories, tracking the couple and navigating themes of motherhood, misogyny and masculinity in contemporary Japan.
The text details the goings on of the unnamed couple and two others, all uncanny and bearing varying levels of eccentricity, but it is only the narrator and ‘his wife’ who struggle to conceive. Even the weasels and exotic fish that frame the stories have no trouble having children, heightening the wife’s unease and the husband’s dissociation as the novella goes on. Surrealism is the breath that fogs the window into the everyday lives of these characters. Events are encroached by a haze of unease, and this only increases as the story wears on, so the reader has to squint hard to see what’s really there.
To me, as someone who only knows of contemporary masculinity from the outside looking in, this novella interestingly feels that it’s adopted the same perspective (assuming that Oyamada too takes this stance). There’s a distinct sense that the narrator is trying to feel around for a sense of self, something concrete to hold on to. But time moves quickly and in a matter of pages several years elapse, and he withdraws into the role of spectator in his own story. He loses contact with his close friend, and each time he sees him notes how this friend is ageing, putting on weight, becoming like a proper ‘dad’. We know very little of his own developments; his role is as an observer. In many passages it feels as though the other characters wouldn’t notice if he weren’t there.
This writer isn’t equipped to decipher what this has to say about masculinity, but it is an interesting device, especially in relation to the book’s parallel focus on motherhood, which is equally striking. Weasels discusses motherhood from a man’s perspective (and written by a woman). In a haunting passage where the wife is detailing how her family curtailed a weasel infestation, she says: ‘the mother weasel’s final scream – was a warning to the father weasel and their children. This house is dangerous… Don’t stay here or they’ll drown you… Leave and don’t come back.’
Ominous snippets of text like this build the sense that the scenes of domesticity aren’t all they seem. The overwhelming scent of plums, roast boar and fish food that punctuate the story are the cherry on top of concoctions of unease that Oyamada brews with a slight of hand.
For a ‘fishy’ death, adorable but itchy weasel infestations, and a short, strange book you can devour (if you have room) in the midwinter fog, look no further than Weasels in The Attic, published by New Directions.