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by Mitsuyo Kakuto
Translated from the Japanese by Wayne P. Lammers
Reviewed by Kathleen Ambrogi

We have all heard stories about school bullying. It can drive children to shed tears, to run away from home, even to commit suicide. In Japan, some schoolchildren have retreated into hikikomori, a social disorder characterized by refusing to come out of their homes, or even one room in their homes, often for years. But what of children bullied in more subtle ways? How might the simple fear of being cast out, of being friendless, affect the remainder of their lives? This is one of many questions asked by Mitsuyo Kakuta's 2004 novel Woman on the Other Shore.

Recently translated into English, this acclaimed Japanese novel focuses on two 35-year-old women who meet and form an unlikely friendship. They are the classic polar opposites: the unmarried career woman and the homemaker who has left the workforce to raise her child. Each woman has a unique tale to tell.

Homemaker Sayoko's story takes place in the present day. She is distressed when she sees her own social insecurities reflected in her three-year-old daughter's playground behavior. Fearful as a result, she decides she must return to work and place her daughter in preschool, where the child can learn to interact comfortably with her peers. Businesswoman Aoi hires Sayoko and begins to encourage and mentor her. Aoi's breezy style inspires the timid Sayoko to stretch herself, but from the very beginning we sense some deeper secret behind Aoi's lighthearted manner.

Aoi's story is set in the past, and it is there that the darker layer of her life is gradually revealed. Through her point of view, we visit the upheaval of her schoolgirl days, the cruelty of her classmates, and the joyful but doomed friendship upon which she relied. Chapter by chapter, we struggle through a frightening past with Aoi and return to a confusing present with Sayoko, alternating between the youthful evolution of one and the adult evolution of the other. As we do so, the women's shapes begin to shift, and we realize that neither one is what she seems or what she hoped to be. Although Sayoko is surrounded by family and Aoi is alone in the world, loneliness dogs them both. Each must find a place in a society at war with its own traditions, and each must find a way to live with the cruelty of the crowd, the harsh judgment of her peers, the bullying that is never entirely outgrown.

Kakuta's unusual two-pronged narrative is expertly handled, with the two tales finally converging in an unexpected ending. Her readable style reveals each character as imperfect but sympathetic, traveling a rutted road toward identity while trying to avoid the potholes. The story asks whether, in Aoi's words, it is possible to "find something that can make you unafraid of being alone." How these women approach that search, and learn to hold hands as they do it, makes for compelling and satisfying reading.