Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng

“I am a quiet lady, but my imagination is wild and busy.” Isobelle Ouzman

Livia and TsengFrom one island to another, having left the four holidaymakers from elsewhere on Little Lost Island in Brenda Bowen’s Enchanted August, I find a not so little, but lost islander in Mayumi, a 41-year-old librarian and resident of another New England island.

With a demanding 4-year-old daughter who has claimed a place in the marital bed, an emotionally and physically distant husband and finding solace between the pages of the books she reads, Mayumi’s life seems to lack something she isn’t aware of, until someone arrives at the library counter to ignite it.

She develops a fixation on a 17-year-old boy, seducing him and slotting him timetable-like in her already routine, controlled life, as if forbidden love is just another aspect of a carefully planned existence, something that be contained.

In addition, she can’t help but allow a friendship to develop with the boy’s mother, her equal desire for friendship and understanding crossing neurotic wires that seem destined to create an emotional explosion.

Publisher, Europa Editions describe the book as:

“With echoes of  The Giant’s House and shot through with literary references, the debut novel by Asian-American poet Jennifer Tseng is a book that leaves a lasting impression.”

and Kirkus Reviews:

Tseng explores time and place, isolation and connection, and veers more toward the lyrical than the lurid.”

while the author herself said:

“I love the premise of someone in a mundane setting, then a stranger walks in, and everything changes.”

Jennifer Tseng

Jennifer Tseng

It was a strange read for me and while many authors succeed in bringing the reader inside a perspective that might be counter-intuitive to their own instinct, it felt as though I remained on the outside of this narrative, never able to crossover into the world Muyumi inhabits, through her narcissistic obsession.

I haven’t read The Giant’s House, although reading the blurb of it I can see why comparisons might be made.

orhan-pamuk-the-museum-of-innocenceThe only reading experience I can compare this too is Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, which is a very long treatise on the experience of obsession, it is so long that you can’t help but experience the tedium of an unrelenting obsession.

Tseng’s exploration is unique by virtue of it being a female obsession, confusing the roles of mother, lover, friend and wife.

It is a reminder that in the quietest of environments, the imagination is actively at work and you never know when inspiration or obsession might alight.

I leave you with a quote from the book, where Mayumi is feeling frustrated by the pending departure of the young man for a couple of weeks over the summer:

“You know I didn’t come here to mix with your sort. If anything I came here to escape such excitements.”

What had in it the seed of a compliment came off sounding like a snub. He drew back slightly as if I had just hit him.

“What I meant to say,” I persisted, determined to salvage the moment and bolster his confidence, “is that this is a highly unusual circumstance. I’ve lead a very sheltered life, sheltered from good as much as from bad. I’ve minded my own business. I never sought thrills. I’ve been content to avoid the company of youth and beauty. Before you, I had no desire.”

“With all due respect, May, I find it hard to believe,” he finished in iambic pentameter, “that a woman with your brain and your appetite came halfway across the world in search of nothing.”

He was well-mannered yet restless; his eyes studied me as though I were a page in a book. I had the sense of being one among many, of being read intensely but fleetingly by a reader who would soon turn the page.

In addition to being a poet and fiction writer, the author Jennifer Tseng is a librarian on Martha’s Vineyard, a New England island.

Pumpkin Island Maine

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.

17 thoughts on “Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng

  1. Beautiful review Claire. I find stories of such obsession very uncomfortable for some reason. You are so right when you say that imagination is always at work and we can never know what inspiration may come out of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m always drawn to a title with the word ‘happiness’ in it, but the description of the book was not at all what I was expecting. I agree with the author about the premise being a good one, although I am not sure how I would feel about this woman’s particular obsession. I just finished reading Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki, which is about a man’s obsession with a younger woman in 1930s Japan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think in this case ‘sea of happiness’ is a metaphor for the ‘oblivion of obsession’, it could be the coming-of-age of a teenage, except that it’s not from the perspective of the young man and it’s not him that does the seducing although as you might expect, he willingly goes along with it.

      I’ve generally avoided books like this in the past, but the cover is definitely alluring. It’s an interesting dilemma, especially as you mention the opposite case and I am reminded that in many cultures, not only is it acceptable but often middle age men actually marry women the age of this boy.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Okay, since it took that, here’s what I had commented on your latest post:

    It has been a long time since I’ve been able to read anything in French. I once read Voltaire in French, and wrote an analysis on it, but that was quite some time ago. I’m sure this was a lovely read, even if some of the description became a bit lengthy and too tiresome to look up.


    • It’s the perfect novella for getting back into reading in French, French is her second language, but she uses it in such a beautiful way, she was surprised that it has had such a potitive response, but that’s its natural beauty and orginality I think coming through.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington – Word by Word

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