“Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness” was recommended to me by Poppy in one of the comments on my June post about the best books of 2015 so far. The premise of this novel instantly grabbed me. A middle aged librarian falls for a young man who enters her library and they engage in an intense affair. For me libraries have always been spaces of sexual discovery as well locations for intellectual engagement and community support. Surely many pre-internet bookish teens first found out about sex and romance in the pages of library books. However, it’s also a physical meeting point where you might unexpectedly encounter someone with the possibility of romance. I discussed this at the launch of Ali Smith’s recent book "Public Library" and many people in the audience nodded sympathetically. Librarian Mayumi Saito has read countless novels about illicit affairs from “The Lover” to “Lolita.” Therefore she’s unusually aware about the pitfalls of giving into temptation. Yet she can’t resist the passion she feels for the seventeen-year-old boy she meets making this novel a moving and knowledgeable meditation on love in all its varieties.
Mayumi lives on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts with her husband Var and their young daughter Maria. Her marriage has become loveless leaving Mayumi feeling very lonely. When the young man (who she refuses to name throughout the novel) enters her library he gives her the imaginary possibility of romance that soon becomes an obsession. At first, reading about this is somewhat tedious like listening to a friend describing a continuous romantic fixation. As she acknowledges: “I alone felt the thrill” making it feel of little interest to anyone but herself. Where this novel really picks up is when the physical realization of this love affair sends her careening off into dangerous emotional territory.
There are frequent references to islands throughout this novel – both inhabiting a physical island and an island state of mind. Tseng brilliantly describes the transforming emotional state of Mayumi throughout the book. At first she finds “by reaching out to the young man, I had made myself an island.” This is a place of physical, emotional and sexual satisfaction like none she’s felt in years. But this is an affair with many layers of complexity because of the fact of her current marriage and the extreme age difference between the couple; she knows it must eventually end. This terrifies her in a way she aptly describes here: “The image of my small life without the young man was one of a library with its doors locked, or, simpler and more terrifying, that of a book with half its pages missing.” Her emotions are complicated by fear and guilt. Soon “the island of my mind was such a horror.” She has been irrevocably changed. Her reality is filled with the fear of discovery, the guilt of wronging both her lover and husband and the terror of losing this emotionally vital new part of her life. The novel continues into areas of experience which are unexpected and gripping.
An obvious parallel for this book is Zoe Heller’s “Notes on a Scandal” which follows the affair of a much younger man by a mature woman through a third party. Mayumi doesn’t shy from facing the reality of taking advantage of a man so young blithely acknowledging “In the end, I didn’t mind being a rapist so much as I expected.” There are very real potential legal complications of having sex with a seventeen year old. Added to this are even further levels of emotional complexity when Mayumi becomes friends with the boy’s mother Violet, a solitary individual struggling with her own feelings of dislocation.
I felt a nice twinge of recognition early on in the novel when Mayumi makes a reference to “the Mishima novel about a boy who spies on his mother’s lovemaking.” Having read “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea” earlier this year I instantly knew this was the novel she was referring to. Don’t you love it when you instantly know the text being referred to by an author? This will no doubt happen to many people reading this novel as many classic books are referred to throughout the book. In addition to adding to the plot by drawing in a multitude of references to literary love affairs, this also gives pleasure to the reader who knows the central character is such a keen reader herself.
“Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness” is an intense and intimate novel which captures layers of emotion not often covered in the innumerable libraries of novels about tragic love affairs.