The Thorn Puller by Hiromi Ito. Translated by Jeffrey Angles. Albany, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2022, 300pgs. ¥3,069 (paper).
Hiromi Ito’s remarkable work, The Thorn Puller, takes readers on a pilgrimage across time, space, and literary genres. First serialized between 2006 and 2007 in the magazine Gunzō as Thorn Puller: New Tales of the Sugamo Jizō (Toge-nuki Jizō: Shin Sugamo Jizō engi), the work won the Hagiwara Sakutarō Prize in 2007 and the Murasaki Shikibu Prize in 2008 before appearing as a single volume published by Kōdansha in 2011. The Thorn Puller offers the kind of experimentation and playful literary performances readers have come to expect from a writer long recognized as the “shamaness of poetry” or shi no miko. Itō earned the name due to her propensity to “borrow voices” from earlier works of Japanese literature, legends, and Buddhist texts, from contemporary poets, from popular culture, and even from plants and animals. In The Thorn Puller she channels, incorporates, and summons snippets of sutras, captured conversations, lines from letters, famous verses, and blends them with her own luminous language to produce a lyrical narrative journey.
The journey undertaken in Thorn Puller is spatial, as the narrator Hiromi Ito travels back and forth across the Pacific Ocean, visiting her aging and ailing parents in Kumamoto, Japan, and returning to her elderly and indisposed husband in California. On some trips she brings along her young daughter, Aiko. At one point she rescues her middle daughter Yokiko, who is having difficulty adjusting to university life in California. Back and forth, back and forth, with each trip readers accompany Ito as she deals with the daily tribulations of living in two different countries: setting up a computer, renewing her driver’s license, talking to doctors, talking to neighbors, talking to teachers.
Ito’s journey also takes her readers beyond space and time. We dip into the past, both remembered and imagined. We travel into dreams and legends, rushing along the dark channels of myth that carry us deep into the heart of pain, fear, and loss—the narrator’s, surely, but also our own.
There’s a scene in the work where Ito’s daughter, Aiko, describes a conversation she had with her grandmother that rings all too familiarly to anyone who has watched a loved one struggle with dementia:
I told her you were talking to the doctor, and she said, oh goodness, I didn’t realize. Then, a minute later, she asked me, when is your older sister Yokiko coming back to Kumamoto? I told her August, Grandma. Then she asked me what month it was right now, and I told her July, Grandma. She said, oh goodness, I didn’t realize, so what month is it now? I thought uh-oh, but said, July, Grandma. Oh, really? Say, I’ve been meaning to ask you, Aiko darling, what month is it now? Uh-oh, I thought, but I told her, it’s July, Grandma, then five minutes later, when’s Yokiko coming back home again? August, Grandma. Oh, really? Then, what month is it? Uh-oh, I thought, here we go again. I said July, Grandma, but then she asked where you were. I said, she’s outside talking to the doctor, Grandma. Oh, really? I wonder what they’re talking about. Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, here we go again.
Aiko’s grandmother, Ito’s mother, has lost her tether to time. She drifts between worlds. And in the scene above, her voice blends with Aiko’s, and enters Ito’s story, a “borrowed voice.” The recounting shares a mixture of language registers—the child’s “uh-oh-uh-oh,” the grandmother’s confusion, the narrator’s reconstruction. The scene blends pathos with humor.
While unfolding mostly chronologically and hewing closely to Ito’s contemporaneous experiences in the early 2000s, The Thorn Puller transports readers into the narrator’s girlhood and into her mother’s girlhood as well. We meet her ancestors and their ancestors and the stories they have carried forward into the present. The most compelling of these is the tale of the Thorn-Pulling Jizō of Sugamo, a bodhisattva dedicated to removing the thorns of suffering from those who seek his help. The narrator makes several pilgrimages to Sugamo, Tokyo, to seek comfort from this Jizō, buying protective amulets to carry home to those she loves.
Other forms of thorn pulling drive the narrative as well. In fact, the entirety of the work performs a pilgrimage, a journey to confront death, to remove the thorns of pain and fear from the inevitability of loss. The narrator loses much in the story. Friends die, pets die, plants die, loved ones suffer, the narrator struggles. The narrative becomes a kaleidoscope of experiences and in the end the frame that is left, the story we take away is one of life and the endurance of love, of family, of human connection. “I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive! I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive!”
The Thorn Puller comprises seventeen chapters with evocative titles that cast first-person narrator, Ito, in the role of a third-person fairy-tale character, such as “The Peach Ito Threw Rots, and She Becomes a Beast Once Again.” Each chapter ends with a list of the sources/voices borrowed from earlier texts such as the Kojiki, the Noh play Ukai, Kenji Miyazaki’s poems, or Doctor Seuss. Jeffrey Angles, whose English translation is incandescent, describes The Thorn Puller as a “novel” in his introduction, which wonderfully sets the tone and contexts. He notes that Ito called the work a “long poem.” I find it both and neither. The work, like the story it presents, travels. It wanders between genres. It challenges language, plays with language, twists, distorts, and crystalizes “the unsheathed blades of language.” As Ito writes,
I say this all metaphorically, of course. The peach is a metaphor, the thorns are metaphors, my husband and mother and father are metaphors, the summer heat and winter cold are metaphors, everything is a metaphor. The only thing that isn’t a metaphor is me living as myself, and that’s all I had to hold onto.
The Thorn Puller is a beautiful work, sad and soothing all at once. It is a brave work, as Hiromi Ito shares so much of her life with readers. It carries readers into a mystical world of Japanese folklore, classical literature, and myth. At the same time, it is remarkably contemporary, reminding us all of our own frailties and strengths.