Speaking loudly so that her deaf Obasan (aunt in Japanese) can hear, Naomi asks if Uncle suffered. We now understand that Uncle is dead. While Obasan makes tea, Naomi looks around at the familiar clutter of the house. She sees that Obasan’s eyes and mouth are gummy, and notes that she has never seen Obasan cry.
A loaf of Uncle’s homemade bread sitting on the counter reminds Naomi of his first attempt at baking. Naomi was ten, and wanted to try a recipe for bread. Uncle wound up doing the baking himself, and produced a rock-hard loaf. Naomi’s older brother, Stephen, tried to serve it to her with margarine, but she refused to eat. Over the years, Uncle refined the recipe, but the results were always terrible.
Obasan describes the morning’s events. Uncle was taken to the hospital, where he died. Naomi wonders to herself what Uncle’s last hours were like. She wonders whether he returned to the sea, or to his mother. She thinks about what Obasan will do. She realizes that Stephen won’t help her. He is a moody, restless man.
Obasan says that she is too old, and then goes to scrape the mud from Naomi’s boots. As Naomi wonders if Obasan could live with her, Obasan says that both her body and the house are old. Naomi reflects that the house and all its clutter are inextricably linked to Obasan. Watching her aunt crouch over the boots, Naomi thinks that Obasan is the same as old women in France, or Mexico, or anywhere else on earth.
Naomi thinks about Grandma Nakane, Uncle’s mother. She was imprisoned in Vancouver Hastings Park, an internment camp, during World War II. Naomi remembers a family photograph depicting her closest relatives. Dr. and Mrs. Kato were her maternal grandparents, and Mr. and Mrs. Nakane her paternal grandparents. Grandpa Nakane, a boat builder, moved to Canada first, in 1893. He married his cousin’s widow, who had a son by her first husband. This son, Isamu, is the man Naomi calls Uncle. He married Ayako, the woman Naomi calls Obasan. Obasan has told Naomi that she married Uncle for the sake of Grandma Nakane, who shared Obasan’s love of music. Obasan bore two stillborn children. After the second birth, Aunt Emily gave Uncle and Obasan a puppy.
In the photo, Naomi’s father holds baby Stephen. Naomi’s mother is next to her sister, Emily. Naomi sees no resemblance between Aunt Emily, who is chubby, and Mother, who is delicate. Even as a girl, Naomi sensed tension and unhappiness in the family. Naomi’s mother and father, who were the first in their community not to have an arranged marriage, worked hard to draw their two families together. Naomi makes a vague reference to a worrisome letter from Japan that arrived after her own birth. She says that if her family was once close, it isn’t anymore.
Naomi tells us that, despite her stellar academic performance, Aunt Emily couldn’t get hired as a teacher. Naomi also tells us that her father helped Uncle build boats. He designed a beautiful one, a work of art praised by an RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) officer. In 1941, Uncle was taken away while in his boat. He never returned to the sea. At this point in the narrative, we don’t discover what work Aunt Emily eventually took up, or what became of Uncle.
Because of its lyricism and nonlinear construction, Obasan sometimes reads like a transcript of Naomi’s thoughts. It wanders back and forth in time, it leaps from subject to subject, and it jumbles up the chronology of its stories. Like a train of thought, it takes its direction from images and associations, rather than from the orderly progress of time. For example, the family photo makes Naomi think of her father’s career, which makes her think of the boat he and Uncle built, which makes her think of the praise of the RCMP officer, which makes her think of Uncle’s imprisonment. This construction can make the narrative feel disjointed and jumpy, but it also makes us feel that we’re getting intimate access to Naomi’s inner thoughts.
Naomi infuses her story with small mysteries. We learn in Chapter 2 that she has received bad news about Uncle, for example, but not until Chapter 3 do we learn for sure that he has passed away. We know that Uncle was taken away in 1941, and that he never returned to boatbuilding after his imprisonment, but we don’t know exactly what happened to him. Uncertainty also surrounds Uncle’s relationships with Emily and Obasan. We know that Emily is Naomi’s aunt, that she came to Alberta for a visit shortly before Naomi’s first trip to the coulee, and that her departure left Uncle unhappy. We also know that Obasan is the woman he was married to until his death. What we don’t know, yet, is the exact nature of the relationships between these three people. Obasan is not a plot-heavy novel, but these minor mysteries give the narrative forward movement, and keep us turning the pages.
Chapter 3 gives us our first good look at Obasan. Naomi seems both repulsed and fascinated by her aunt’s physical presence. She provides a detailed description of the gunk that clogs Obasan’s eyes, the chapped skin on her lips, her sticky saliva, her ropy neck, and so on. In part, it is Obasan’s age, rather than anything about Obasan specifically, that makes Naomi uneasy. Her uncle has just died, and perhaps for this reason, Obasan’s decrepit body, evidence of her proximity to death, upsets Naomi. While Obasan’s age fills Naomi with revulsion, it also, paradoxically, inspires her deep respect. As she watches the elderly woman scraping the mud from her boots, Naomi muses that old women the world over, regardless of their nationality, are the ones who hold the keys to the universe. They are, she thinks, the ones who know secrets and hoard details.
The family photograph in Chapter 4 gives us a glimpse into Naomi’s family and its tensions. Naomi provides a few intimations about the conflicts that exist. We know about Obasan’s two stillbirths and Stephen’s honored status as grandson, for example. But Naomi raises more questions than she answers. Was Aunt Emily’s gift of a puppy cruelly or kindly intended? Was Naomi’s own birth unimportant compared to Stephen’s? What did the mysterious letter from Japan say? By raising these questions, Naomi puts us in the same position she was in during her childhood: aware that various conflicts existed, but prevented by the adults (or, in our case, the narrator) from understanding them fully or grasping the details.