The Bengali poet Tagore said it best: “Desire takes us so far from home.” This is the desire that infuses a love that cannot go public, that the world will scorn, and to take even the smallest step toward the object of this love (or lust) is to invite the ruin of all one holds dear on the home front.
In Jennifer Tseng’s new novel — the author and West Tisbury librarian previously published two award-winning collections of poetry — 41 year-old librarian Mayumi, of Japanese and English descent, presides over a decidedly odd home front, but it’s the only one she knows. Her estranged husband keeps to his room and carves crafts that he sells on Etsy; he’s built their shack-like house on a bit of land inherited from his grandmother, the land itself on an unnamed island, but which we can’t help imagining is this Island, the one we share with Ms. Tseng. The protagonist’s daughter, Maria, is 4 years old. They sleep together and, in fact, once Mayumi is home, Maria connects her little hip to her mother’s, metaphorically if not always actually.
Add to this dysfunctional domestic sphere — in a world that teems with dysfunctional domestic spheres, each in its own way (and as Tolstoy pointed out in the first sentence of “War And Peace”) — Mayumi has found herself powerfully attracted to a new patron at the library. The unlikely subject (hitherto brought there by his mother, now sedately requesting his own card), is a 17-year-old boy who, like the island, remains nameless.
“There was something in his manner — softness, reverence, a hesitation in the face — that is peculiar to a boy so close to his mother. Doesn’t intimacy foster reverence more completely than anything that can be taught? As I handed him the form and then watched as he filled it in — his fingers fumbling a bit with the tiny pencil — I didn’t think of having him yet, I simply gaped at his beauty.”
And then she does think of having him. All the time. A reader might suppose, “How will my attention be held by this unusual and even unwholesome attraction?” but Ms. Tseng is one of those rare writers, like Proust before her, and Flaubert and, again, Tolstoy — all the writers who’ve turned their magnifiers on every last detail of obsession, and caused the reader to join in. Obsessional love, after all, is a kind of meat grinder of emotional turmoil through which most humans have churned themselves at least once. “One is very crazy when one is in love,” opined Dr. Freud. When a writer sifts through the debris of the bomb that has detonated in the character’s mind, we’re strangely arrested.
Like Nabokov’s iconic “Lolita,” to which “Mayumi” tips its hat, the unlikely affair is consummated (This is only a minimal spoiler, as it occurs early on). The lovers find a seasonally abandoned cabin by a waterfall, and they throw themselves into numerous trysts. As with “Lolita,” wherein the idea of a grownup luring a minor into sex is repellent and illegal, somehow this storyline, in the hands of this masterful writer, works. It fascinates, especially because we’ve learned from the Bovaries and the Kareninas that this will end badly. But how and for whom is the elusive branch Ms. Tseng extends to us.
“Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness” has already received attention in the larger world (including coverage in the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times), but it’s of additional interest to Vineyarders — no way around it — as we’re treated to outrageously well-sculpted analyses of our own quirks. An example in this description of library denizens: “They were the very young, the lonely, the old, the highly literate, the thinkers and daydreamers, those prone to escapism, and those committed to learning a skill, those who could not afford to heat their homes or to own a computer, those who would not have thought to purchase such a machine if they could have, too busy were they building houses or catching fish or knitting sweaters or planting seeds in rows, those in a hurry, for whom every minute meant money gone, and those who had all day, all the rest of their days, really, to squander. Our island is a haven for misfits, a retreat for those marked by fragility or age or simply an incurable love of beauty; its forests hide fugitives, the mute, the unusually self-sufficient, the deranged, the damaged, the wild.”
It should be noted, too, because so many of us, in addition to being deranged and damaged, are also a bit prudish — it comes with the New England territory — that while this novel is sensuous, and indeed Ms. Tseng has an authorial libido for the eros of love found in odd places, she still manages to tread a delicate balance. Much is left to the imagination, as so many of us prefer. For more prurient texts we could always turn to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but most of the “highly literate, the thinkers, and the dreamers” on this Island of six libraries — six! — have dismissed that book and its sequels as “chick lit.” Ms. Tseng’s novel, for all its romance of sorts, and its delicious bouts of humor (much like Mr. Nabokov’s), is serious literature, each sentence so exquisitely rendered as to constantly remind us that she is a poet, an esteemed poet.
It’s tempting to wonder what separates the author, a librarian of Euro-Asian heritage, married with a young daughter, from the character Mayumi, Euro-Asian, a librarian, also married with a young daughter. I put the question in an email to Ms. Tseng, to which she replied: “Basic differences: Mayumi was born and raised in England, I was born in Indiana and raised in California. She attended a private all-girls boarding school, I went to a co-ed public school. Her parentage is English and Japanese, mine is German and Chinese. She’s an omnivore, I’m a vegetarian. She’s sedentary, I’m athletic. Her husband is on Etsy, mine would never do that. She dates a 17-year-old, I’ve always had an aversion to dating someone much younger than me. She has an aversion to pets, I’m a cat lover. She has favorite patrons, I love all patrons equally. (Kidding about that last one.)”
You’ll notice she adroitly provided the one lingering question this reviewer dared not ask. About the boy. Doesn’t look as if that part is autobiographical. This is fiction, after all.
“Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness,” Europa Press, 2015, $17, available at Bunch of Grapes, Edgartown Books and, of course, all of our six Island libraries.