Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko MatsudaWhere the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda
Translator: Polly Barton
Published by Soft Skull Press on October 20, 2020 (first published December 8, 2016)
Source: Borrowed
Genres: Fantasy, Short Stories, Ghost Story
Pages: 288
Format: Paperback
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In this witty and exuberant collection of feminist retellings of traditional Japanese folktales, humans live side by side with spirits who provide a variety of useful services—from truth-telling to babysitting, from protecting castles to fighting crime.

A busybody aunt who disapproves of hair removal; a pair of door-to-door saleswomen hawking portable lanterns; a cheerful lover who visits every night to take a luxurious bath; a silent house-caller who babysits and cleans while a single mother is out working. Where the Wild Ladies Are is populated by these and many other spirited women—who also happen to be ghosts. This is a realm in which jealousy, stubbornness, and other excessive "feminine" passions are not to be feared or suppressed, but rather cultivated; and, chances are, a man named Mr. Tei will notice your talents and recruit you, dead or alive (preferably dead), to join his mysterious company.

In this witty and exuberant collection of linked stories, Aoko Matsuda takes the rich, millennia-old tradition of Japanese folktales—shapeshifting wives and foxes, magical trees and wells—and wholly reinvents them, presenting a world in which humans are consoled, guided, challenged, and transformed by the only sometimes visible forces that surround them.

I enjoyed the collection of stories in Where the Wild Ladies Are. All of them are loosely based on traditional Japanese stories of yōkai, ghosts and monsters that figure prominently in the country’s folklore. But Matsuda adapts them to a modern setting and gives them feminist themes that are very relevant in the present day.

In the title story, a young man named Shigeru finds himself at loose ends after the suicide of his mother. He’s looking for work but finds himself unequipped to search for a job while he feels so drained. “Shigeru felt barely capable of surviving a gentle wave lapping up on shore, let alone a turbulent sea. Between him and a sandcastle built by a kid with a plastic spade, Shigeru suspected he’d be the first to collapse.”

But he eventually lands a position on an assembly line at a mysterious company that connects the stories. And then odd things start happening. When he visits his mother’s grave, he’s greeted by a disembodied voice singing, “I’m not in there, you hear!” Then he discovers that some of his co-workers might not be exactly human. The story perfectly demonstrates Matsuda’s gift for creating an understated, eerie atmosphere.

The tone of these stories is light and often funny, occasionally melancholy, but the humor never takes away from the seriousness of the issues the author addresses, like oppressive gender roles and misogyny to the frustrations of dealing with the glass ceiling and the stifling expectations of what is or isn’t appropriate behavior. The stories are conversational and easy to read, but original and likely to stay with you for a while.

About Aoko Matsuda

Aoko Matsuda (born 1979) is a writer and translator. In 2013, her debut book, Stackable, was nominated for the Yukio Mishima Prize and the Noma Literary New Face Prize. Her novella, The Girl Who Is Getting Married, was published by Strangers Press in the U.K. in 2016. In 2019, her short story “The Woman Dies” was short-listed for a Shirley Jackson Award. She has translated work by Karen Russell, Amelia Gray, and Carmen Maria Machado into Japanese.

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