Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms (1993)

This debut novel is a great choice for the Women Unbound Reading Challenge because relationships, particularly those between women, are at the heart of it, even more particularly, the relationships between three women in one family: Naoe, Keiko and Muriel (a.k.a. Murasaki, which is what Naoe calls her granddaughter, in honour of the female author of The Tale for Genji, the first novel).

Here is a bit in Muriel’s / Murasaki’s voice:
“Obāchan’s bed of tales was a good place to dream in. Her words sometimes notes of music instead of symbols to decipher. Lay my head in her bony lap and swallow sound. There are worse places to be when you are thirteen. Of course there were times when my Mom and I had conversations. But the things we spoke of never lingered in my heart or deep inside my head. She couldn’t offer me words I craved, and I didn’t know how to ask.”

This passage captures the author’s prose (straight-forward at times but occasionally startlingly poetic, especially when it comes to thoughts about storytelling, an art also at the heart of this novel) and the paradoxes inherent in close relationships.

One might think, for instance, that Muriel would be closer to Keiko, who has tried to shed her heritage to fit into her Alberta, Canada community, but Muriel, as you can see there, has an affinity for her grandmother that almost defies expression.

Almost, but not quite. At the end of Chorus of Mushrooms, what resonates most resoundingly for me is the connection between Muriel/Murasaki and her Obāchan.

Part of this is because so much of the book is told in Naoe’s voice (the author explains in the Acknowledgements that she has taken tremendous liberties with her grandmother’s history, so that her novel is “a departure from historical ‘fact’ into the realms of contemporary folk legend.”

Here, I’ll show you what I mean. Here is Naoe, reflecting on her early years.

“An easy thing to change a name. All it takes is ink and a piece of paper. A whole dimension on a family tree erased when one name is dropped and another assumed. All those mothers and daughters and mothers and daughters swallowed into the names of men. It would make us tear our hair, beat our breast, if we thought about it long enough. Enough of this tree nonsense!”

This gives you a hint of the important role that heritage (or, her-itage) plays in this novel, and  here (because I cannot resist) another sample of Hiromi Goto‘s evocative prose breathing life into Naoe:

“Words tumble from my mouth and change shape and size. They grow arms and legs and crawl about in the dust by my feet, pick up dried moths with curious fingers and scrabble at my pant legs. I feed them with stories and they munch and munch. They grow bigger and stronger and walk out the door to wander over this earth.”

It’s lovely, isn’t it?

But the tale is not Naoe’s alone. “Two women take up two different roads, two different journeys at different times. They are not travelling with a specific destination in mind but the women are walking toward the same place. Whether they meet or not is not relevant. This is not a mathematical question.”

See…doesn’t it seem like the perfect read for this challenge? (But it would also be an interesting complement for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, especially having read The Water of Possibility, for the opportunity to hear the rest of this story “Deep, deep in the mountain forest, there lived a yamanba who lived by herself in a small house of her own making…” and to catch a glimpse of the tanuki and tenga again.)

Why did I wait so long to read Hiromi Goto’s novels? You won’t make the same mistake, will you?

PS This also counts for the What’s in a Name Challenge, “A book with a food in the title”.