How can one be fully present for two families in two countries with two different cultural and social expectations? That’s one of the questions prolific writer Ito Hiromi asks in her semi-autobiographical book The Thorn Pullermasterfully translated by Jeffrey Angles.
Her first novel to appear in English, The Thorn Puller follows a woman as she travels back and forth from southern California to Japan to care for her ailing parents. As the narrator, also named Ito Hiromi, navigates the trials and tribulations of caregiving, she comes to grips with her own life choices.
With frank, humorous prose that sinuously morphs into the musical cadence of poetry, The Thorn Puller tackles subjects like aging, death, and suffering from a transnational perspective that also illuminates the bittersweet joy of being alive.
Back and Forth, Comings and Goings
Each chapter reads like a tale in a long epic poem, bound by motifs of the bodhisattva Jizo of Sugamo who removes the “thorns” of suffering from worshipers, mostly working-class women.
Like Jizo, Ito becomes the thorn puller to those relying on her most: her elderly parents in Japan, caught in the loneliness of their failing bodies and minds; and her cantankerous husband in California, mired in anger over his own poor health. Her children also grapple with their own difficulties and growing pains, which become more in focus over the book’s progression.
The female body has long been central to Ito’s writing, and she doesn’t shy from poking fun at her own aging body. While she begins determined to fulfill her duty as dutiful daughter, questions about death and faith hound her, sparking her own pilgrimage of understanding.
Unlike the benevolent Jizo, Ito is only human, a “down-to-earth, practical person” who doesn’t always empathize with her charges’ pain. Neither does her family, her husband especially, seem to understand her suffering, underlying the complexities of an intercultural marriage. Her struggle to find the balance between adding and alleviating their suffering creates a delicious tension underlying the phone conversations, gossip, emails, and observations of life.
Every one of her [Ito’s mother] experiences was a needle piercing her flesh. She gave birth to children she couldn’t care for. She got pregnant and had an abortion, then later, a miscarriage. She had seen so, so, so many demons. Still, I wanted to ease her suffering, even if it was just a little. So I made up a story.
The Thorn Puller, p. 47
Like the constant travels back and forth, the narrative also jumps back and forth in time and place with the intimacy of a diary more than a traditional plot-centric narrative. While It isnt afraid to occasionally veer into the surreal or recontextualize events through the lens of popular Japanese folk tales and Noh plays, The Thorn Puller feels very much rooted in the modern day, buoyed by rich lyrical descriptions of nature and daily life. It’s all too easy for modern takes on mythology to come off as superficial, but here it feels genuine and immediate.
The Throne Puller: A Seamless Blend of Prose and Poetry
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
The Thorn Puller, p. 37
Poetry can put many people off. But even the most poetry-averse reader should be able to appreciate Ito’s masterful play with words and repetition. At times I was unable to resist reading lines aloud to savor the flow of language in my mouth. I tip my hat to Jeffrey Angles for elevating the cadence of the original Japanese to such wondrous heights.
Ito is also an incredibly well-read person, as shown in the notes at the end of each chapter citing the authors and works she’s taken inspiration from. For a work channeling so many notable Japanese literary styles — which garnered Ito two of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes — providing an equivalent reading experience for an English reader is quite the lack of the daunting task, especially when many works official English translations.
Some allusions were more obvious than others, even when not directly referenced in the story, while others flew over my head. However, that didn’t detract from my overall reading experience, as Ito adds her own flair to make this story solely hers.
Although there isn’t a neat and tidy conclusion, what permits the final pages is a sense of closure and acceptance of Ito’s place in the push and pull of opposing cultural values. The Thorn Puller exquisitely chronicles life and the constant reckoning with our own and others’ suffering, pulling those thorns out again and again, even when we sometimes want to push them in deeper.
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