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Book review: The Things She Owned

Books & Poetry

Rhoda Okoidigun reviews Adelaide author Katherine Tamiko Arguile’s hauntingly beautiful novel The Things She Owned in this article published as part of Writers SA’s literary criticism series A Year in Review.

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The Things She Owned, by Japanese-Australian writer Katherine Tamiko Arguile, is a riveting novel exploring the desperately strained relationship between a mother (Michiko) and daughter (Erika).

The story follows the dual perspectives of Erika and Michiko, with Erika’s narrative describing her present life and Michiko’s detailing the past. Each chapter is punctuated by a brief yet thorough description of the things “she”, Michiko, owned in her lifetime, with all the items of significance to the story.

Erika is burdened by the memory of her mother as she holds onto the pain of the past. Growing up, she did not know her father’s identity, while her strong-willed mother commanded Erika refer to her as Michiko rather than Mama. Michiko was more concerned with keeping up appearances and entertaining her male “friends” than with the happiness and well-being of her daughter.

Due to the trauma suffered as a result of her mother’s cruelty, Erika’s current life in London at the age of 30 is grey and hollow. She has entrenched herself in a comfortable routine of cleaning and cooking, distractions that help her escape her memories. But the signs of her sorrow are there, nonetheless: in her inability to dust the alcove upon which her mother’s remains rest, her phobia of water, and the growing guilt that looms inside her.

Michiko herself grew up in Japan during World War II. She was raised by a scared mother and an abusive father, enduring not just a scarcity of food, but of comfort, love and happiness.

After a fateful encounter with an American soldier towards the end of the war, Michiko’s life changed forever. She dreamt the American dream – the glitz and glamour promised by Hollywood movies – and became convinced she was fated to be extraordinary.

A series of events propel Erika to embark on a journey in search of peace, remedies and even redemption. The mystery surrounding her mother’s death and her father’s identity are unshrouded as she strives to break the yoke of unreciprocated love, misery and lack of forgiveness for both others and one’s self.

There is much depth to Tamiko Arguile’s novel, with each chapter unravelling new layers of secrecy and answers. The characters are fleshed out and very well developed, and the story is rich in Japanese culture, language and history; fans of Memoirs of a Geisha will find this most appealing. The Things She Owned is hauntingly beautiful.

The Things She Owned is published by Affirm Press.

Rhoda Okoidigun is a writer based in Adelaide. Her poetry has been published in the True North anthology “You Are Not Alone”. 

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A Year in Review is an initiative by Writers SA, with assistance from the Australia Council of the Arts, to produce a series of book reviews published in InDaily over the next 12 months.

The reviews will focus on titles published during the pandemic, highlighting the work of Australian authors and publishers during this difficult time for the sector, and giving literary critics an outlet for their work that supports a strong culture of reading.

See previously published reviews here.

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