Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fuminori Nakamura, Japan, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books

‘The Kingdom: A Novel’ by Fuminori Nakamura

Fiction – paperback; Soho Crime; 202 pages; 2016. Translated from the Japanese by Kalau Almony.

The Kingdom: A Novel is typical Fuminori Nakamura fare. Morally dubious central character. Tick. The world of the criminal underclass. Tick. Shadowy goings-on. Tick. Themes of alienation and dislocation. Tick. Sexual violence. Tick.

But this dark mix of anger, excitement and paranoia isn’t enough to sustain what is essentially a fairly mediocre plotline. I came away from this novel thinking I’d wasted my time reading it, which is not what I normally feel when I read Nakamura. I’ve read four of his novels now, but this one — his tenth and supposedly a companion piece to his rather thrilling The Thief — was a major disappointment and left a horrible after taste.

Set in Tokyo, it tells the story of Yurika, a woman employed by a secret organisation to trap men in compromising situations so that they can be blackmailed. She does this by posing as a prostitute, getting the “target” alone, usually in a hotel room, then drugging them so she can take off their clothes and take incriminating photographs.

But when she’s approached by a rival organisation to get information on her boss, she begins to play the two sides off each other in a rather dangerous life-or-death game — with mixed results.

An unconvincing heroine

The Kingdom: A Novel is written in the first person from Yurika’s point of view. I found it difficult to accept her as a female character; her mindset, particularly her obsession with masochistic sex, felt too male. And while Nakamura tries to round her out by giving her a sympathetic back story — she grew up in an orphanage and as a young adult loses two people to whom she is closest, the pain of their loss conveyed via flashbacks — the details didn’t feel convincing to me.

There are some distasteful scenes in the book, too, including many references to (and depictions of) rape. In part, it reads like a misogynist’s sexual fantasy, which probably explains why I didn’t like it very much.

This is despite the fact I admire Nakamura’s prose style, free from adjectives and with every word carefully chosen to move the fast-paced plot ever closer to its conclusion. It’s full of recurring motifs — the moon, guns and glittering jewellery — and explores themes of weakness, obsession, religion and survival in an interesting way. But it lacks any light and is so full of sadistic characters it’s hard to recommend this book to anyone other than a hardened reader of Japanese noir.

This is my 2nd book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year. I also read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March 2021, here. 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Fuminori Nakamura, Japan, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books

‘The Boy in the Earth’ by Fuminori Nakamura

The Boy in the Earth

Fiction – paperback; Soho Press; 160 pages; 2017. Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell.

The Boy in the Earth is the latest novel by Japanese writer Fuminori Nakamura to be translated into English. I had read two of his earlier works — The Gun (translated in 2016) and The Thief (translated in 2012) — to be interested enough to pre-order this one, which arrived in the post a couple of weeks ago.

First published in 2005, this book is Nakamura’s fifth novel. Winner of the Akutagawa Prize — one of Japan’s most important literary awards and presented twice a year since 1935 —  I don’t think it stacks up against the previous two I have read, but it’s a quick, haunting read nonetheless. If you’re feeling a bit low I would caution against reading it though — The Boy in the Earth plumbs some seriously dark territory and has a strong nihilistic streak running through it.

It’s narrated in the first person by a young Tokyo taxi driver, who has obsessive fantasies about dying. In each of these fantasies he envisions himself returning to the earth, being subsumed by the ground and becoming at one with the dirt around him.

It’s only mid-way through the book that the reader comes to understand the reasons for this strange obsession.

A quiet, understated novel

There’s not much of a plot.The Boy in the Earth is basically a character study, although I’d argue it’s not even much of one of those. We glean few insights into the unnamed character’s personality other than the fact he’s plagued by suicidal thoughts, cares little for his “girlfriend” (a woman who sleeps with him in exchange for sharing his apartment rent free) and has no family or friends. He’s a loner and an outsider.

The prose style is very pointed: it’s pretty much adjective free and every word is chosen to move the storyline forward. It feels pedestrian, but as the narrative plods ahead, there’s a frisson of suspense when the taxi driver discovers the father who abandoned him as a child wants to re-establish contact. Should he take the plunge and meet him? Or turn his back and walk away?

As you may have gathered The Boy in the Earth isn’t a cheery read — and I haven’t even told you about the grotesque abuse at the heart of it. It focuses very much on themes that seem to dominate the few Japanese novels that I’ve read — alienation, love, loss and loneliness — and adds a new twist: what happens to children who suffer horrendous abuse and grow up to become adults? Will they ever find a way to live their own lives? Or is death an easier option?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fuminori Nakamura, Japan, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books

‘The Gun’ by Fuminori Nakamura

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura

Fiction – hardcover; Soho; 198 pages; 2016. Translate from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

My first introduction to Japanese crime writer Fuminori Nakamura was in 2012 when I read his prize-winning novella The Thief, an extraordinary story about a pickpocket who targets the rich and helps the poor.

The Gun, to be published by Soho next week, is another prize-winning book by the same author. It was Nakamura’s debut novel, originally published in hardcover in Japan in 2003 and now published in English for the first time.

Obsessed with a gun

The simple story is about a college student, Nishikawa, who finds a handgun at a crime scene, inexplicably steals it and then becomes obsessed with the weapon. He takes it home, buys special material to wrap it up in, polishes it with a kind of creepy reverence and thinks about it constantly. It becomes more important to him than his sex life:

I returned to my apartment and opened the satchel. The gun was as breathtakingly beautiful as ever. The girl I had just slept with was no comparison for the gun. In this moment, the gun was everything to me, and would be everything to me from now on as well. As I pondered whether or not it was loaded, I gazed at its piercing metallic sheen.

Over the course of the next few months he becomes more and more obsessed by his new illegal possession and decides he needs to use it for its true purpose  — to kill a human being.

A chilling storyline

The most impressive thing about the book is the chilling nature of it. It’s written in fairly pedestrian prose, with scarcely an adjective in it, but it builds up a slow momentum as you begin to wonder whether Nishikawa, who was in an orphanage until the age of six, will ever get caught.

It’s written in the first person, so you only ever get to see things from his point of view, but it soon becomes clear that for all his supposed normality he’s out of touch with his emotions — he never loses his temper (even when he has good reason to), treats his girlfriends abysmally, doesn’t care too much about his parents and even less about the biological father who lies dying in a hospital bed — and only begins to worry when a policeman knocks on his door. Even so, he never seems to understand the consequences of his actions.

But Nishikawa isn’t without heart — he cares about the little boy who lives next door whom he suspects of being physically abused and takes steps to report the situation to the authorities — and is well liked by his peers.

Not your usual crime novel

As with The Thief — and much other Japanese crime fiction I’ve read — this book is not about solving a crime but gives you a glimpse inside the head of a young man who could, potentially, carry out a horrendous criminal act. It asks many questions — what makes good people do bad things? how do you go from committing one small crime to one big one? does the criminal ever feel justified in his actions? how do internal and external events impinge on what happens? — and provides some answers, albeit limited ones.

It shows how an alienated youth, seemingly well-adjusted and well liked, can become caught up in events greater than himself, events that will changes his life in ways he may never have imagined possible before. And it has a lot to say about guns, including their beauty, their craftsmanship, their fascinating appeal — and the violent purpose for which they are designed.

The Gun was originally published in a Japanese literary magazine and was awarded the Shinchō Prize for new writers in 2002.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Mike McCormack, Publisher, science fiction, Setting, Soho Books

‘Notes from a Coma’ by Mike McCormack


Fiction – paperback; Soho Press; 199 pages; 2013.

Mike McCormack’s Notes From a Coma was first published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in 2005.

This newly reprinted edition by American publisher Soho Press has a cover adorned in lavish praise: “The greatest Irish novel of the decade” (Irish Times); “The next step in Irish fiction…visionary” (author David Means); and “The finest book yet from one of Ireland’s most singular contemporary writers” (author Matt Bell).

Any wonder I was itching to read it?

Irish setting

At its simplest level Notes From a Coma is the tale of JJ O’Malley, a Romanian orphan who is adopted by an Irish bachelor and raised in the west of Ireland.

JJ’s childhood is a happy one, but his life goes off the rails as a young adult when his best friend — and the closest thing he ever has to a brother — dies. Plagued by guilt and grief, JJ decides to do something radical and volunteers for a Government experiment in which prisoners are put into a deep coma and kept on a prison ship.

So, on one level this is a charming, easy-to-read tale about one boy’s life in small-town Ireland, but on another level there is a strange science fiction element to it.

Strange structure

It gets stranger. This narrative arc of JJ’s life from birth to adulthood is told by five different narrators — his adopted father, a male neighbor, his girlfriend, a government minister and a teacher — who give us a well-rounded picture of a complicated and highly intelligent person.

Each narrator is looking back on JJ’s life and each is trying to put it into some kind of context now that JJ is taking part in a daring and controversial experiment, an experiment which has made him a household name across the globe.

This story is undercut by an excessive number of footnotes, which spark off the main text and delve into all kinds of topics, including neuroscience, incarceration and communications theory. So, while you’re reading about JJ’s childhood you might suddenly be transported, via a footnote, into a philosophical exploration of how the internet has changed the way we communicate with one another.

Of course, you could choose not to read the footnotes, but they do inform the text and add an extra layer of meaning to the novel’s main story arc. And they certainly made me think about many things in a new way.

Highly original read

The big question is: did I like Notes From a Coma? It was certainly odd and I spent most of my time trying to work out whether it was literary fiction, science fiction or complete bollocks, before I decided it didn’t really matter.

I was enjoying the ride and I liked the almost clinically morbid atmosphere it evoked. Indeed, it felt very Ballardian at times (I was occasionally reminded of J.G Ballard’s High-Rise, not least because McCormack seems equally obsessed at the notion of what happens to us when the veneer of civilisation begins to slide). Yet it was written in a graceful, elegant prose style, so typical of Irish writers, that it seemed at odds with the concepts and ideas being presented.

There’s no doubt it is an audacious book, bold and daring, and pushes the limits of what fiction can do. And while it has some unusual elements, the structure of the book — specifically its clever use of footnotes — means the flow of the main narrative is not interrupted. (The structure of J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year tried something similar, but there were three narratives in his novel all vying for equal space, which made it a particularly difficult read.)

Perhaps my biggest problem with the narrative (and the reason I’ve given it three stars and not four) lies more with the fact that almost two months after having read it none of the story has stuck: to write this review I went back to my notes and reread chunks of the book. But on the whole, this experimental novel is an intriguing, highly original read. It covers big themes — politics, crime and science, to name just a few — but at its heart it is a simple story about love, redemption and acceptance.

Agnete Friis, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Denmark, Fiction, Lene Kaaberbøl, Lithuania, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books

‘The Boy in the Suit Case’ by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis


Fiction – paperback; Soho Crime; 313 pages; 2011. Translated from the Danish by Lene Kaaberbøl.

If you thought all crime novels had to feature a police investigation, think again. In this Danish thriller, first published in 2008, there’s nary a police officer to be seen. Instead the star “investigator” is a Red Cross nurse, Nina Borg.

A toddler in a suitcase

The story, which is told in the third person throughout but from multiple viewpoints, opens in dramatic fashion. Nina collects a suitcase from a locker in the left luggage department of Copenhagen train station, hefts it down to her car in the underground car park and opens it away from prying eyes. What she finds inside shocks her:

In the suitcase was a boy: naked, fair-haired, rather thin, about three years old. His knees rested against his chest, as if someone had folded him up like a shirt. Otherwise he would not have fit, she supposed. His eyes were closed, and his skin shone palely in the bluish glare of the fluorescent ceiling lights. Not until she saw his lips part slightly did she realise he was alive.

Why is the toddler in the suitcase? Who put him in there? Where is his mother? Who owns the suitcase? And, perhaps most intriguingly, why did Nina collect it?

Wide cast of characters

The narrative back tracks to introduce a wide cast of characters, all of whom play a part in this extraordinary crime which crosses borders and the class divide. There is rich businessman Jan and his beautiful wife, Anne; Lithuanian Jučas and his older Polish girlfriend Barbara; single mother Sigita and her young son Mikas; Nina’s estranged friend, Karin; and then Nina herself, a nurse who helps abused women and children.

The story skilfully interleaves each character’s rich back story with events that unfold in heart-hammering fashion as Nina tries to work out not only who the boy belongs to but why he has been kidnapped — and by whom.

And because she chooses to do this without involving the police and without even telling her husband — admittedly, their marriage is on the rocks — there are moments of great tension and danger throughout.

An exciting story

But this isn’t an easy read. That’s mainly because the various narrative threads, told in alternate chapters, take some time to come together — it’s not until the final chapters that the reader comes to understand the connections between the different characters. But the effort is rewarding and the story is an exciting one.

Perhaps the novel’s greatest strength is that the authors — Lene Kaaberbøl is a fantasy writer and Agnete Friis a journalist and children’s author — take time to reveal the motivations of each character regardless of which side of the crime they are on. It makes for an intelligent, involving and compassionate read.

The translation, by one of the authors, is also superb. The prose feels effortless, but has a punch and depth to it, and it is so seamlessly written it’s impossible to tell it is the work of two people.

The Boy in the Suit Case was shortlisted for the Scandinavian Glass Key Award for Crime Fiction.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Nina Vida, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books, USA, Western

‘The Texicans’ by Nina Vida


Fiction – paperback; Soho Press; 304 pages; 2006. Review copy courtesy of the author.

I can’t remember the last “Western” novel I read; it’s not a genre I find particularly interesting, but I put that down to a childhood filled with F-Troop re-runs on TV!

Nina Vida’s The Texicans is set during the mid-19th century, about 18 or so years before the American Civil War.

The story spans 12 years in the life of Joseph Kimmel, a Missouri school teacher, who decides to give up his job in order to tie up his deceased brother’s business interests in San Antonio, Texas. Somewhere along the way, he gets distracted and never quite makes it to San Antonio. He spends four years in the newly established Castroville instead, where he marries a German immigrant, Katrin, not because he loves her, but to save her from the local Indian chief.

Life in the mountains

The couple head for the mountains to make a new life for themselves, acquiring a handful of misfits, including two escaped African slaves and their families, along the way. This is risky business for Joseph, because having negro sympathies could earn him a lynching. However, as a Jew born to Polish immigrants, he knows what it is like to be cast aside and treated as not quite human.

Much of the story revolves around the adventures and dramas as Joseph begins to establish his own town known as Kimmelsburg. It’s a tough way of life and there are many battles to be fought with local Indian tribes, including the Comanche and Tonkaways.

Meanwhile, as Joseph struggles to love the woman he married, he falls for Aurelia Ruiz, the daughter of a Mexican man and his Anglo wife. But Aurelia, who has made a name for herself as a healer (or witch), is already married to one of the runaway slaves and is therefore out of bounds. But this thwarted love affair adds an extra dimension to a story that is already ripe with drama and intrigue.

Odd structure but gripping narrative

Sadly, I think the book, while eloquently written, suffers a little from its odd structure. It opens with the story of Aurelia, and explains how she developed her healing talent, was later married off to a cruel white man and eventually lives with a tribe of Comanche indians. It’s a rip-roaring narrative that I thoroughly enjoyed, but then, oddly, her story seems to end and we’re suddenly thrust into the world of Joseph Kimmel, never to truly return to Aurelia’s point of view.

The characters are also perplexing, in the sense that I found it very hard to identify with them. Joseph is a complete enigma: he seems so socially liberal and kind-hearted and generous, but the ways in which he treats his wife, barely acknowledging her and showing no love or fondness, is hard to reconcile.

Equally, Katrin seems incredibly strong and resilient in all matters except where her husband is concerned, and Aurelia, by far the most interesting person in the whole book, seems to flit around the periphery of the story, never taking centre stage.

But what I liked most about The Texicans is the refreshingly honest presentation of history, free from political correctness. This is a world where settlers — white and black — must learn to live with the fear of being scalped by Indians and lynched by the Texas rangers. In some ways it reminded me of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, although Vida tends to paint the pioneers in a rose-coloured light that would make Grenville quake at the knees.