An aging couple still reeling from the wife’s affair with an American soldier enters a fresh hell when the woman receives a diagnosis suspiciously like cancer in Nobuo Kojima’s Embracing Family, first published in 1965. Humorless Shunsuke can do nothing to please Tokiko, who blames him for her lost youth. They build an expensive Western-style house to compensate, but the wife’s illness removes her to an all-but-in-name cancer ward.

Tokiko’s situation has a Magic Mountain–like quality of deception; traditionally in Japan, the disease is kept from the patient, as awareness of mortality is thought to destroy the will to live. Kojima aptly describes the competitive gene that follows sufferers into the hospital, where they keep strict watch over fellow inmates’ rates of recovery and failure.

During one particularly dark night, Tokiko urges her husband to “stay calm and see the whole thing as comic,” but Shunsuke is unable to do so. The author likewise forgoes levity in a tale whose tragic nature at times becomes oppressive. The melancholic pair finds little redemptive power in a sickness that brings into relief their previous failures and their inability to make up for lost time.

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