Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, the new novel from Jennifer Tseng, follows Mayumi, a forty-one-year-old librarian, married with a child, who begins an affair with an unnamed seventeen-year-old boy who she meets in the library. Despite being aware of the potential consequences of her decision, Mayumi cannot ignore this encounter, and her obsession with the boy grows. She asks him to meet her at the waterfall, a secluded area in the woods, and their affair begins. She asks him several times if he would like to change his mind, offering him – and herself – an exit, but he is adamant.
Tseng’s writing is poetic, using the symbolism of the island the two inhabit to describe Mayumi’s feelings towards her lover. Mayumi does not shy away from deconstructing this relationship in her endeavours to come to terms with this incomprehensible attraction; is it his youth, her stagnant marriage, or the boy himself?
“Tseng’s writing is poetic, using the symbolism of the island the two inhabit to describe Mayumi’s feelings”
From the very beginning of their acquaintance, one gets a Freudian sense to this relationship: Mayumi feels proud of his legible handwriting as he fills the registration form for his library card like a mother would for her child. “And why did I, even then, feel a twinge of pride at that?”
Painfully conscious of the “power differential” in their relationship, with her being older and more experienced meaning she often makes the first move, Mayumi offers him many chances to leave before it is too late. As the relationship develops, however, it seems the roles are shifting and he is acting paternal towards her; as he helps her climb up to the loft, he in control while she is looking up to him for instructions like a child. “I looked up at him the way children glance at their parents before undertaking some new challenge, and, without missing a beat, he winked at me fatherlike.”
“The novel takes on unexplored territories in the well-known plot of forbidden love”
The novel is broken down into four main parts, following the four seasons. The affair begins in the winter, with the long nights offering some refuge to their secret. As the start of summer grows nearer, however, Mayumi is anxious about what the future holds; he will soon graduate and start thinking of a life beyond the small island. He has his whole life ahead of him, and she knows she can’t hold him back. In fact, she is excited to witness his journey of growth even if it means she is not a part of it. In that sense, her maternal instincts overpower her selfish desires as a lover.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I did not expect it to take on unexplored territories to the well-known plot of forbidden love. Mayumi’s friendship with the boy’s mother added another dimension to the story. His mother clearly plays a dominant role in his life, and through their interactions, Mayumi can glean more about him than he is willing to share. On the other hand, Mayumi is tormented by her guilt of “corrupting” the woman’s son, while maintaining a convincing façade when in her company.
Mayumi never once mentions her lover’s name; the reason for this is gleaned towards the final pages. In that respect, it is similar to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, in which the protagonist is never named: if a character’s most basic form of identity is not known, it makes the reader question their very existence. At times, the implications of the parental nature of the relationship were too heavy-handed; the novel would have benefited from a more subtle portrayal of the evolution of the relationship and hence the role of the ‘parent’, trusting in the reader’s ability to make these connections on their own. Nevertheless, Tseng’s lyrical writing style, interesting take, and twist on a nearly-exhausted plot in this debut novel already has me waiting impatiently for her next work.