In the endless silence of the night you watch your evil garden grow

My Beautiful Shadow
by Radhika Jha

This was an odd read – a well-written book about a character I found it extremely hard to empathise with. Which is not something I generally shy away from in my reading, but it turns out there’s only so much detailed description of shopping and fashion that I can cope with!

Kayo might live in Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities, but her world is small. She marries her high school boyfriend straight from school, and is immediately plunged into the life of the housewife, only leaving home to shop or get her hair done. When she has her first child a year later, her life gets even more lonely. On her rare outings she feels keenly that she is the harassed unkempt young mother, sharing the streets with glamorous office ladies whom she can never befriend.

Two things step in to change this for her. Kayo’s mother, offended at not having been invited to her daughter’s wedding or told about the birth of her first grandchild, turns up on the doorstep one day and hands Kayo a large cheque in lieu of the wedding kimono a mother would usually buy her daughter. It is understood between the two women that this will be their last meeting. Kayo decides not to tell her husband and uses the money to open her own bank account. She finally has the means to create a little freedom for herself.

“Entering a changing room is like being alone with your loved one for the first time. Now is the moment when you can hold your prize in your hands and taste the pleasure of ownership. Separated from prying eyes, you can touch your prize, kiss it and finally, enter it. Inside the changing room, you savour your privacy. Here you take possession for the first time.”

Kayo finds her relief, the place where she belongs, in the department stores, hunting out designer clothes on sale. She can’t afford much, but feels immediate relief when she is armed with the right shoes and the right handbag. A chance meeting with an old school friend introduces her to invite-only sales – and the bug truly bites her. Kayo is quickly in debt, and a whole new dark underbelly of Tokyo is opened up to her.

I personally have zero interest in fashion or designer labels, and I don’t really understand taking any notice of either, which meant there were long sections of this book that came dangerously close to boring me. What stopped that was the emotional journey Kayo goes on, her struggle to fit in somewhere, the fault lines appearing in her marriage. There is a very moving section in which Kayo tries to fit in with a group of mothers at her daughter’s school but they are richer and more culturally educated than she is, and she stumbles again and again.

“To be a superwoman you need to create a secret garden inside yourself, and in that garden you throw all your filth – everything you cannot say or feel – your tiredness, your anger, your hatred of your family and your responsibilities, the never-changing routine. In the endless silence of the night you watch your evil garden grow. In the day, you stamp it down and you are a superwoman.”

It’s a sad story right from the start, with some fairly shocking twists. While it opened a window on a world I really don’t know and struggle to understand, what I really appreciated was the language and the human story.

Published March 2017 by Jacaranda Books.

Source: The publisher supplied an advance review copy via NetGalley.