Book review: The Laws of Evening, by Mary Yukari Waters

originally posted elsewhere: November 6, 2008

tl;dr: Exquisite portraits of post-WWII life in Japanese society...

I first encountered Mary Yakuri Waters' stories in the O. Henry and Best American Short Story anthologies, and thoroughly enjoyed the stories I read in those volumes. During my first-ever trip to Japan, I chose The Laws of Evening, a collection of eleven of Ms. Waters' stories, to put my mind in the proper frame for the visit. It turned out to be an excellent choice. Each story was not only enjoyable, but provided insight into a different segment of modern-day Japanese society and 20th century history.

A book cover consisting of a lavender-tainted photo of a Japanese woman dressed in a kimono and holding an umbrella walking away from the camera across a large sand dune, superimposed with the book's title and the author's name

Unlike some short story collections by a single author, each story in The Laws of Evening stands on its own and explores a different element of Japanese society. Waters is able to avoid seeming to rewrite the same story over and over. The primary commonality across all stories is that they explore incidents in the lives of average middle-class Japanese people. Waters focuses her attention on the characters' thoughts and feelings, and uses their actions to illuminate her characters' personal philosophies on life and living. The characters in her stories typically place limitations on their actions and formulate routines that end up defining their roles in their families and society. There is also an underlying theme of the rapid modernization of Japan, and the adaptation that Japanese citizens have therefore had to undergo to transform their culture and society. Waters explores these themes with descriptive, precise prose and interesting plot lines, and the result is a collection of very well-crafted stories.

I would be hard-pressed to choose a most favorite story in this collection or to identify a dud - they were all enjoyable and insightful. I plan to reread these stories again in the future, when I want a refresh on Japan. For anyone with an interest in getting inside the minds of average, everyday people in modern Japanese society, I highly recommend The Laws of Evening.