A Review of Dreaming Water by Gail Tsukiyama

At times the narrative was almost too pretty for its subject – too sentimental. As a reader, I wanted more anger, more pain, more depths into Hana and Cate at least. They are both so good, so radiant, even when wet with urine, ashamed, cold and lonely. Dreaming Water is like a Haiku. Just the edges of the story are presented – the beauty and poetry. The rest – the day to day ugliness – is up to the reader to supply. Much is lost in these characters’ lives, but that isn’t what Dreaming Water is about. It is about what is left – what is gained, in any life, short, tragic, or seemingly perfect.

 

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Dreaming Water
by Gail Tsukiyama
St Martin’s Press
April 2002, hardcover, 288pgs
RRP A$45.00

In Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, Moraes Zogoiby ages at twice the normal rate, becoming an old man well in advance of his ravishing mother Aurora. This mysterious aging disease seems like magic realism in The Moor’s Last Sigh but in Gail Tsukiyama’s Dreaming Water the magic realism is gone and Hana, the protagonist, is dying from the very real aging disease, Werner’s Syndrome. The story opens as Hana is 38, but appearing and suffering the symptoms of an 80 year old. She experiences incontinence, osteoporosis, severe weight loss, poor sleep and of course the pathos of her lost youth. The story is told in first person confessional style, switching between the narratives of Cate, Hana’s mother and caretaker, Hana and Josaphine, the daughter of Hana’s childhood friend Laura. We know from the outset that Hana’s rapid aging is leading her towards death. There is no cure for Werners, and Hana’s decline is rapid.

The narrative is a delicate one, moving between Cate’s attempts to come to terms with her daughter’s disease and her own loss, Hana’s attempts to make sense of her life and Josaphine’s attempts to work out her place in the world as she moves through the awkward but very normal teenage years. Cate is not only facing the loss of Hana, but the grandchildren she will never have, and loss of her own future caretaker, as well as the past loss of her husband Max. Hana must work through the loss of all those things that make up a “normal” life – love, marriage, career, children – the very things that her friend Laura has. These separate narrative strands are played against one another, bringing out a complete picture of what it means to deal with life, loss and make sense of our lives in a wide range of differing circumstances.

There is also the subtext of “difference.” Italian Cate’s marriage to Japanese Max creates in Hana a mixed heritage which makes her “different” before Werners becomes apparent. Both Cate and Hana learn slowly about Max’s internment on Heart Mountain during World War 2, and his past – the sufferings he endured as a Japanese American. There is also Cate’s memory and Hana’s discovery of the bigotry which Cate and Max experience in the small town of Daring, California where this novel is primarily set. These elements mix with the strong contrast between Hana’s condition and her healthy friend Laura’s, showing the reader that difference and reality are in many ways, as shadowy as the short lives we lead. In the end, death and time level these differences, leaving us with only the connections we have created.

The narrative of this book is a quiet one, with very little action. There are a few car trips, a visit to the park, a few trips to the doctors, but mostly, the action takes place in the minds of the three narrators as they struggle through their circumstances, changing their perspective and understanding:

In the quiet I could feel my heart beating, the pulse and flow of blood that struggles precariously through my hardening arteries, like water unable to flow through the stem of a flower.

The narrators discover themselves in the course of the book, and this is where the “action” takes place – not in anything external which takes place, or even in the relatively momentous visit which Laura makes when she drives from New York to California with her children to visit Hana. The main focus of the novel is love. There is great love, guilt and dependence between Cate and Hana, each wanting to give the other more than they can. There is the love that both Cate and Hana feel towards the deceased Max, whose absence is important in this story, prefiguring the absence of Hana which is impending, and providing a shared experience beyond that of Werner’s between Cate and Hana. There is also the love between Hana and Laura – a friendship which survives Hana’s disease and Laura’s own tragedies, and is mirrored in the teenage awakening of Laura’s daughter Josaphine, who learns, along with the reader, about the beauty of fragility of life through Hana’s condition. Above all though, this is the story of love betwen mother and daughter, both selfish and selfless, pure and tainted, in all its unconditional pain and purity.

At times the narrative was almost too pretty for its subject – too sentimental. As a reader, I wanted more anger, more pain, more depths into Hana and Cate at least. They are both so good, so radiant, even when wet with urine, ashamed, cold and lonely. Dreaming Water is like a Haiku. Just the edges of the story are presented – the beauty and poetry. The rest – the day to day ugliness – is up to the reader to supply. Much is lost in these characters’ lives, but that isn’t what Dreaming Water is about. It is about what is left – what is gained, in any life, short, tragic, or seemingly perfect.

For more information on Dreaming Water visit: Dreaming Water

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