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The Thorn Puller is the first novel in English by award-winning author Hiromi Ito, one of Japan’s most notable contemporary poets. Her work explores sexuality, motherhood, childbirth, migration, and more recently, death and dying and the cultural pressures upon women to be caregivers. It is this more recent focus that we see in The Thorn Puller. Delving deep into Ito’s own experience, this auto-fictional account explores the challenges of caring for two families across two different cultures – her husband and daughters in California whilst her ageing parents are in Japan.
The book takes its name from the famous statute of the bodhisattva Jizo in Sugamo, which is itself a clue as to what’s in store. This deity, known as “The Thorn-Pulling Jizo,” is believed to remove “thorns” (people’s suffering) with as many as tens of thousands of worshippers a month making the pilgrimage to the Sugamo site. The unusual structure of the novel, in which the visits become the through-line is striking (or puzzling) at first, but after a few chapters readers will find themselves immersed in a layered reading experience that goes well beyond the story of Ito’s caregiving. Like much of Ito’s work there are deeper themes to be unearthed, which are offered up in layers for the reader to discover.
Jizo, Japanese folktales, folklore and literature weaved in from other prominent writers, poets, novelists and monks are a constant presence in the novel. This, coupled with the fact that it does not read like a typical novel with a clear narrative thread pulling the reader forward, foregrounds Ito’s experience. It brings the focus into wider view and serves as a constant reminder that there is something bigger than our own suffering and existence to consider. In one particular instance, the author goes as far as to relate the history of her own family as a folk tale:
“Sometimes I think about recounting our family’s story in the style of a Japanese folk tale. I might begin with a song and then launch into it, like some old-fashioned storyteller. Here, let me give it a try:
Where a bridge of tears
crosses Oshito Stream
ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS a man named Tatsugoro who was tall and ruggedly handsome.”
The presence of these other voices alongside Ito’s own voice, however, has the effect of blurring the lines of what belongs where and to whom. It brings to the fore what it means to be immersed in a globalised world. In the novel, whilst submerged in the challenges of Ito’s transcontinental reality, the reader is also subjected to traditions from home and elsewhere all at once. In seamlessly weaving many voices into her own, she reminds us of how the boundaries of modern life are constantly being transcended, as we are ever exposed to stories from everywhere, which become the fabric of our own lives, of our own experiences. These experiences shape us and though we individuate, we nonetheless become part of the collective whole. This obscuring of boundaries between East and West is extended throughout the novel, with Ito also confusing the divisions between fact and fiction, realism and surrealism. The mix of the two side by side is unique and continuously intriguing.
As in her previous works, Ito does not shy away from life, but faces it head on. The caregiving experience is portrayed with unflinching honesty, as she calls out the harsh realities of ageing (including her own ageing body):
“Mom was getting use to her wheelchair. In fact, it seemed like it had become part of her. It wasn’t just the big toe in her right foot. Her right thumb, index finger, middle finger, ring finger had become paralysed too. All the fingers on her right hand were affected. Meanwhile, she was losing movement in more and more of her left side − both her fingers and toes. Only the ring finger and little finger on her left hand were working. I parked her wheelchair in a corner of the hospital dining hall and bought a rice ball. She clutched it between her ring finger and the little finger, carrying it to her mouth like an eagle clutching its prey in its talons.”
These visceral images force us to look, to acknowledge, to accept. They have the effect of simulating the reality of the caregiving experience, and – purposely or not – normalise suffering and ageing, weaving it back into the fabric of life, into the universal tale. The tone is one of resignation, or at least a handing over to what may come.
Just as Ito does not shy away from ageing, nor does she shirk away from the complexities of her closest relationships. Instead, she brings these realities into sharp focus examining what it means to have family, to be faced with the challenge of relating to each individual in a meaningful way, to strive to keep sight of who they are a opposed to seeing only the roles and functions they play in our lives. This unveiled, very frank account is refreshing, giving space for the reader to examine their own relationships with honesty and humanity:
“Now and then I thought we were on the same wavelength, but I’d soon realise I remained a mystery to him. I’d realise my feelings of closeness were an illusion, and I’d get disappointed and angry. In my rage, I’d do all sorts of things − maybe pick a fight, maybe have sex with him, if I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
As with her mother’s increasing confusion, Ito addresses these delicate subjects, with a dignity and humility that never fails to stoke emotion:
“How did I end up like this? Did I do something bad?
No doubt you did lots of bad things. I’d be telling the truth if I said that so I bit my tongue. [ …]
So I made up a story.
Mon you’ve killed too many spiders.
Spiders? Spiders? I wonder. Did I really squash that many?”
Gradually, as we become privy to Ito’s own suffering, we begin to recognise that Ito, in caring for both families and herself, has become the thorn puller of those dependent upon her.
Ito has been described as a “shaman of poetry” because of her expertise in weaving many voices, the clever deployment of literary devices throughout her work, and her unequivocal skill, which is brilliantly demonstrated in this work. In fact, it is Ito’s innovative experiments with language that bring the central points to the fore, leaving the reader with lingering questions about identity and home and the relevance of absolute boundaries in the globalised world. This book will speak to many. It will certainly captivate those who are familiar with her work as it will poetry lovers, but her work is so expansive and brilliantly crafted there is something in this novel for everyone. I am certainly no poetry buff nor am I particularly familiar with Japanese folklore, but as a reader I was enthralled by The Thorn Puller’s for its melodic, mesmerising voice, for the wisdom it imparted and Ito’s inescapable creative genius.
by Hiromi Ito
Translated by Jeffrey Angles
Stonebridge Press, 280 pages
Elizabeth is a writer writing for the 21st century reader. Her work explores how the narratives, old scripts and stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and what we deserve, are often as fabricated as any fictional novel. Exploring the relationships we have with self and others in contemporary life, Elizabeth’s work pulls the reader not just into the story unfolding on the surface, but the characters inner world and family dynamics unraveling underneath. Elizabeth is unafraid to explore form to find the best way to tell the story being told that honours the story. She evokes an immersive reading experience, provoking the reader to engage with their own stories. Elizabeth is from Ireland and she has an MPhil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin and a PhD in Sociology from Queen’s University Belfast.