“Let’s suppose what you’re telling us is true– as unreasonable as it sounds– and say that through some supernatural means Kyoko was pregnant with her husband.”
The Summer of the Ubume begins with a Socratic debate between a young writer and a used bookstore owner on the nature of perception and reality. The one-sided discussion, lead by author surrogate character Kyogokudo, dismisses the supernatural by way of entry level quantum mechanics. He then diverges after 30 pages into a lecture on yokai, monsters of Japanese folklore. It isn’t until afterwards that the characters begin to address the mystery that sparked their conversation– the whereabouts of a doctor gone missing in a locked room and the unusual circumstances of his wife, still pregnant after 20 months.
The novel continues in this expository fashion to the last page. The ubume of the title, and other creatures like my sentimental favorite, the turtle-faced kappa, are explained away as delusional manifestations of psychological trauma or small town medical ignorance. Climactic revelations are reached in the most discursive manner possible. Coupled with a dry English translation, these lengthy, self-congratulatory conversations dilute the mystery of any sense of unease or urgency. The main character sums it up himself: “The seemingly academic folkloric inquiry of the last few minutes had been leading up to this single point the whole time.”
It’s possible that much of the mood and sense of place (the story takes place in the decade after World War II) that accounts for Kyogoku’s success in Japan is lost in translation. But the low-key supernatural elements will likely disappoint American readers looking for a Japanese ghost story, assuming the plot– a short story stretched beyond 300 pages by insufferable sophomoric rambling– doesn’t keep them from closing the book before it finally reaches its conclusion.