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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #13 (March 23, 2004), page 11.
Looking back, looking forward
The Laws of Evening
By Mary Yukari Waters
Hardcover, 192 pages, $21.00
By Josephine Bridges
In "Seed," the first story in this collection, a young Japanese mother watches as Chinese prisoners of war march past her house. Her toddler daughter squeals and dances, not quite to the beat of the drum that accompanies them, and the prisoners grin back at her. "And as the columns of men grew small in the distance, Masae felt this moment shrink into memory, shriveling and gathering into a small hot point in her chest: a stray seed. It could have so easily been lost." The Laws of Evening is filled with ordinary moments like this, instants that are elevated and preserved by the power and mystery of memory.
War casts shadows on a number of Mary Yukari Waters’ stories. In "Shibusa" a young Japanese wife suggests to her husband that they invite their Chinese maid to eat with them. "We just defeated these people in a war," he replies. In "Aftermath" a mother notes that her son’s growth is "abetted by a new lunch program at school, subsidized by the American government, which has switched, with dizzying speed, from enemy to ally." In "Rationing" the protagonist’s father "belonged to that generation which, having survived the war, rebuilt Japan from ashes, distilling defeat and loss into a single-minded focus with which they erected cities and industries and personal lives." There is steel beneath the velvet surface of The Laws of Evening.
Buddha’s presence is also keenly, yet tenderly, felt here. In the title story, a mother whose life has held more than its share of tragedy looks at the face of the Nan-ben-ji Buddha. "It had shed all emotion. When she was a child, this had unnerved her: what help could you possibly receive, praying to a smile so disengaged and remote? Now, examining this face, Sono sensed how much of life it held: behind these features had once stirred great joys and griefs." In "Circling the Hondo" a woman who has just lost her status as lady of the house comforts a Water Buddha, "There, there," as she ladles water over it.
Mary Yukari Waters was born in Japan and moved to the United States at age nine. She is half Japanese and half Irish American, an ancestry that may in part account for her quirky and marvelous perception of memory, which entails not only looking back, but also at times looking forward. In "Aftermath" a seven-year-old boy notes, "I only remember things that happened after I was three. So that means I’ve forgotten a whole half of my life." He goes on to ask his mother what will happen as he gets older. "Am I going to keep on forgetting? Am I going to forget you, too?" In "The Way Love Works" a young woman imagines a conversation with a child she hasn’t yet even conceived. "‘Once, when I was a girl,’ I will tell my daughter, gripping her hand tightly, ‘I walked these alleys just like you, with my own mother.’ Saying these inadequate words, I will sense keenly how much falls away with time; how lives intersect but only briefly."
In the story "Since My House Burned Down" the narrator describes a horse painted on a scroll. "The strokes throbbed with contained energy: the haunch a heavy, swollen curve of black ink; the tail a drag of half-dried, fraying bristles that created the effect of individual hairs swishing in space." This is just the way Mary Yukari Waters writes, with economy and passion. It’s hard to believe that this is her first collection of short stories, but it’s easy to look forward to her next.