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Life After Dark

Photo by Beth Herzhaft

Mary Yukari Waters’ characters emerge from her stories like delicate watercolor portraits, detailed enough to be recognizable but never overdrawn. There is no excess in her narratives, no drama, no superfluous preposition or adjective. And yet the tales in her book, The Laws of Evening, are never spare and cold, never burdened by self-consciously great writing. Instead, each of the 11 stories turns out to be humbly, almost accidentally inspiring, as if Waters had set out to tell plain stories about the lives of Japanese civilians before, during and after World War II — for their own sake and without any lofty purpose — and inadvertently unearthed a mine of enduring truths about the consequences of history. It is as if she even surprised herself.

In “Aftermath,” a war widow named Makiko observes how the Americans “switched, with dizzying speed, from enemy to ally”; just so, her little boy, Toshi, playing the newly imported American game of dodge ball, turns on his former teammates “without the slightest trace of allegiance.” In “Mirror Studies,” an elderly man with a heart problem, Kenji, describes his failing brain function as “clean lines of scientific thought tangling in the kelp of his personal sorrows.” One is tempted to characterize such writing as uniquely Japanese, but Waters’ storytelling feels more universal: Her characters may be specific to another country and other conditions, but there’s nothing foreign about their pain or their determined efforts to dispel it. In “Kami,” a widow named Hanae begins every day with ballroom dancing, heeds the diet wisdom of TV doctors, and programs music to fine-tune the day’s moods. In another context she’d be ridiculous, but not here: As our knowledge of Hanae’s personal misfortunes accumulates — an infant lost to crib death, a loving husband lost to the war — her defiant insistence on joy shames us all.

Organized in chronological order, from just before the war to many decades after, the stories in The Laws of Evening (Scribner) cover the vast chasm between those who stage wars and the individual lives disrupted and ruined by them. Even Makiko, who scolds her son for taking candy from American soldiers, can articulate the terms of Japan’s surrender. Waters has chosen not to write about the shapers of history but rather the ordinary people who struggle to love their lovers and raise their children and look on the bright side of a world gone dark with death. One quotes the poet Masahide to remind herself how: “Since my house burned down/I now own a better view/of the rising moon.” In the lives of these fictional survivors, Waters offers us a valuable lesson in living.