BOOK REVIEW EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ELLA KELLEHER WRITES – The “perfect suburban life” is pretty simple in theory: get married, buy a house, and have children. Invite your neighbors over. Take up a hobby – like raising exotic fish. Yet, this seemingly picturesque ideal of marital bliss is scrutinized in Japanese storyteller Hiroko Oyamada’s latest novella, Weasels in the Attic (2022). Something sinister haunts the homes of the narrator and his friends. A series of impossible expectations and warped ideals manifest in small creatures with teeth and claws that stalk the lonely corridors of these disillusioned characters’ homes in the dead of night.
Hiroko Oyamada is no stranger to social critique in her slender but powerful books. Having authored The Hole in 2014 and The Factory in 2013, she, alongside longtime translator, Anton Hur, has humanized those in Japanese society without a voice. In The Hole, we meet a man rejected by society for his idiosyncrasies and rejects society right back by becoming a shut-in or hikikomori. The Factory embodies the societal pressure of needing to live to work rather than enjoy life. In an extra-slim 96 pages, Weasels in the Attic is a cautionary tale – be watchful of societal “ideals.” In other words, do not be fooled by what the movies try to sell you as being “perfect” because there is undoubtedly something menacing lurking beneath the polished façade.
After a long day, the narrator’s wife asks him, “On a scale of one to ten, how badly do you want kids?” The narrator is not exactly enthused about the white-picket-fence life: “Man. What can you even say to that?” Whether his wife is the true originator of her maternal desires remains to be questioned. What happens next is a series of encounters split into three sections. In each, our main couple meets two friends who have succeeded in having families. Much like Oyamada’s other stories, this tale teeters on the edge of bizarre surrealism, giving her writing an almost dreamy and nostalgic effect.
The first friend our main couple meets lives in a store for exotic fish and aquarium supplies. The other friend lives in a newly refurbished home with a terrible weasel infestation and a room with tanked scleropages jardinii – a menacing, carnivorous fish native to Australia. Both homes are hardly comforting. The reader is made to feel deeply unsettled as Oyamada skates over the darker details of these homes and their sinister atmospheres. Never granting us the relief of understanding the problem at face value, Oyamada forces the reader into a truly unsettling predicament: what if your home – a place of refuge and comfort – is the precise source of your misery?
Yoko, the wife of the narrator’s friend Saiki who suffers from a weasel infestation, is significantly younger than her husband. How much younger? We never find out. Saiki also nonchalantly orders Yoko, the mother of his child, around like a maid. Does the wife have any freedom in this relationship? Just how free is she in this so-called “perfect marriage”? The wife of the narrator’s other friend never gives a straightforward answer when her partner asks her about his fertility status after a sperm count test. When she later gets pregnant, we are never told whose child she carries.
Not only does Weasels in the Attic metaphorically embody the societal pressure to achieve marital perfection in Japan, but the story also questions the status of motherhood in Japan. Once a highly coveted position that is still pressured upon young Japanese women, this societal bracket is quickly shrinking due to a generational disconnect with traditional values and a complex array of social issues, including intense working hours, societal repression, and economic disparity.
Much like the weasels that invade and live in the attic, the ideals and pressures put on young women and men in Japan to achieve perfection, which in large part means to work diligently, marry, and procreate without any regard for their personal and generation struggles, fester like unwanted pests that spread and get more dangerous as the issues are left untreated.
In a culture saturated with gendered norms, women are painted in the same shade of faded pink: “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’s voice and character disappear in a mumbling of apologies, and we, the readers, are left to imagine her fate.
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the AMI book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.
2 Replies to “BOOK REVIEW: WEASELS IN THE ATTIC (2022) BY HIROKO OYAMADA – WHAT’S HIDING IN THE DARK?”
Brilliant and thought provoking as usual. Thank you