In less than 100 pages, a woman writer, using a male narrator, tells the stories of three couples and their journeys toward parenthood. Whether there is joy or sorrow, what each grouping reveals is how deep and strong the ties of family are, including chosen family.
Hiroko Oyamada's third book, Weasels in the Attic, begins in an oblique way with addressing its focus. The male narrator talks about his friend Saiki, who wants him to go to the funeral of another friend. The narrator remembers when they went to visit the deceased man, Urabe. He came from a wealthy family so did not have to work for a living, and was living above a tropical fish store that he had tried to run, but which failed. Urabe and Saiki are fascinated by the fish; the narrator, far less so.
The men are surprised that Urabe has a very young wife and a baby. She spends all her time with the newborn or tending to the men's food and drink. When the baby naps, she even goes to the store to get more victuals. The narrator is the only one of the three men who considers her needs as a new mother. He has sisters with children and enjoys holding the baby. It's then the reader may remember a throwaway paragraph earlier in the story, that the narrator and his wife are trying to have children but it hasn't happened.
Instead of focusing in that direction, though, Urabe tells them about the time he thought an animal had broken into the fish shop's storeroom. Instead, it was a starving girl. He gave her a packet of dried shrimp food for her and her impoverished mother to eat. When she would show up at night, he would give her another packet. If she showed up when the shop was open, he would ignore her.
It's not made explicit, but what if that starving girl, a few years later, became the young mother in the story. Urabe is not an involved father. Is that a link to his strange way of helping the hungry girl? There is a connection between his off-handed family arrangement (especially when it turns out he didn't marry the young mother, but the baby was his), and his interest in fish breeding? He is trying to see what happens when discus with different markings breed. It's not scientific though.
“So a lot of thought goes into pairing them?” Urabe took a second to think. ... “Maybe. In a way, there’s a lot of intention behind it. At the same time, it’s pretty intuitive.” “It’s too hard to explain,” Saiki added, even though he was barely listening. “It’s the same for people, though.” Urabe stood up and walked over to the tank with his cup in his hand. “We meet at school, or work, or maybe a store. Wherever it is, there’s just a random group of individuals, right? Within that group, you find your mate. If you were in a different group, you’d end up with a different mate, right? But we never dwell on that. We live our lives in the groups we have—in our cities, our countries, even though we didn’t choose them. Know what I mean? We like to tell ourselves it’s love, that we’re choosing our own partners. But in reality, we’re just playing the cards we’ve been dealt.”
The randomness of Urabe's breeding fits right in with his commitment to family.
A few years later, former confirmed bachelor Saiki marries. He and his wife move to the country, and weasels invade their home. Whenever a weasel is trapped, Saiki travels farther up in the mountains to set it free. And more weasels come into the attic. The narrator's wife grew up in the country and tells them what her grandparents did when weasels invaded her parents' home, including drowning one. It's hard to read, especially as his wife witnessed the death of an animal she thought was adorable. It's even harder to read when she says that her grandmother knew the reason for performing the death near the house. It was because of family.
"She said that sound—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 . . . Goodbye. That’s why we had to do it here, my grandma said. Now they’ll never come back."
The loyalty and sacrifice of the weasel are the opposite of Urabe's care of family.
Later, the narrator relates that Saiki and his wife followed the advice of his wife, and the weasels disappeared. His feelings about his country neighbors improves and he and his wife have a baby. The narrator and his wife visit. An unexpected snowstorm has them spending the night. The baby is colicky and fussy, and Saiki's wife is exhausted with her nursing duties. Saiki, former heavy drinker and devil-may-care man, relishes his role as house husband, taking care of everything else. He turned out the opposite of Urabe, and he loves it.
Where does that leave the narrator? Well, there is a clue at the end about his future. But more important to the overall focus of the story than this revelation is a dream the narrator has. They spend the night in a room filled with aquariums; Saiki has once again taken up the hobby of tending to tropical fish. He may even be interested in Urabe's breeding focus.
In the dream, the juvenile bonyfish that is in one tank suddenly jumps out of it and lands on the narrator's chest. He can't breathe. His wife is no longer in the room. He tries to sit up, to throw the fish off him, but cannot. When he wakes up, the fish has not left its tank and his wife is sleeping peacefully beside him.
Is he trying to throw off the idea of fatherhood, which has continued to elude him? If he ever became a father, what kind of a parent would he be?
Oyamade uses the stories of the animals to show the ways in which the three men react to being part of a family. Saiki not only embraces the idea of fatherhood, he extends his family circle to his neighbors. His wife and the narrator's wife become close friends, creating another familial circle. The narrator is part of these circles, yet distant from them in his descriptions. Is this his way to report what happened? Or is it indicative of how he feels?
One of the fascinating part of Weasels in the Attic is that the focus is on the men. It's an opportunity for a woman, such as Oyamada, to look at the themes of fertility and family that are often relegated to the sphere of women. Her showcasing that not all men react the same is an important consideration.
The translator, David Boyd, deserves mention as well. When a translator does a wonderful job, such as here, it is worth noting how important that work is. He places anyone reading Oyamada's work in English easily in her world as the narrator is placed in homes of the others he is bringing to life.
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