Book lists, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Setting

6 gripping crime fiction reads from Japan

The crime genre is often accused of being formulaic and cliched, but the handful of Japanese crime novels that I have read tend to shun the usual conventions. In these well crafted stories we often know who has committed the crime. Sometimes we even know how they did it. And occasionally we know why.

Japanese crime writers, it seems, are more interested in looking at the circumstances surrounding a crime, the impact of the crime on victims, friends, family, investigators and even the accused, and  what these crimes say about society at large. I find them wholly fascinating and know that whenever I pick up a Japanese crime novel I’m going to read something entertaining as well as intelligent.

As with most Japanese fiction, these novels are generally written in a stripped back, flat, detached prose style, which only adds to the chilling nature of the stories.

Here’s a handful of Japanese crime novels that I can recommend, arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

 

Devotion of Suspect X

‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino

Keigo Higashino is a master crime writer whose tales turn the genre on its head. I have read several (all reviewed here) but The Devotion of Suspect X is my favourite. In this extraordinary crime thriller, we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up. But what we don’t know is the detailed steps that have been taken to protect the real murderer. The story is effectively one giant riddle; the reader must find the clues and then join them together to create a likely scenario, mindful that the real clues have been mixed in with red herrings! It’s a brilliantly gripping read — and turned me into a Higashino fan.

‘Out’ by Natsuo Kirino

I read Out many years ago (sadly it’s not reviewed on this blog), but the story — of a group of women who help a colleague get rid of the body of the philandering husband she has murdered — is another Japanese crime novel that turns the genre on the head. Yes, we know who committed the crime and we know all the women who become accessories after the fact, we even understand why and how the murder was carried out. But what we don’t know is whether the perpetrators will get away with it and whether one of them will say or do the wrong thing to give the game away. It’s a real nailbiting novel, but it’s also an insightful one about misogyny, domestic violence and the Japanese working class.

‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato

This dark novel is a revenge story about a woman who takes the law into her own hands with devastating and gruesome consequences. It focuses on a grief-stricken school teacher, who accuses two of her students of having murdered her daughter. She doesn’t name the students but drops enough clues that everyone knows who she is pointing the finger at. She then avenges the crime, but this does not bring peace: it simply begats more crime so that a dizzying dark spiral of events unfolds, sucking people into its deadly centre. It’s a terrifying novel but it deals with big themes, including how we teach children right from wrong, how society deals with child criminals and what barriers there should be between teachers and their students. It’s a thought-provoking read.

‘The Aosawa Murders’ by Riku Onda

The central focus of The Aosawa Murders is a devastating mass murder in which 17 people (including six children) are poisoned and die agonising deaths at a family celebration. The prime suspect is the family’s blind daughter, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill her loved ones? The book, which has a complex structure featuring multiple view points and time frames, is about the long-lasting impact of the crime on those directly affected by it, including the police who carried out the investigation, those who knew the family well and the local community. There’s no neat ending, but it’s the kind of story that leaves a marked impression as the reader tries to process what happened and why.

‘The Thief’ by Fuminori Nakamura

This prize-winning novella is told from the point of view of a man who makes his living by petty theft. His sole occupation is to pick the pockets of the wealthiest people he can find, either on the streets of Tokyo or the public transport system. But he isn’t a particularly bad person; there’s a good heart inside of him. In one scene he is so outraged to see a man on the train groping a schoolgirl he comes to her rescue. And later, when he sees a woman and her young son shoplifting, he warns them that they have been spotted by the store detective. This isn’t a story about solving a crime; it’s merely a glimpse inside a criminal’s mind which allows you to empathise with someone you would most likely condemn. It’s an intriguing conceit.

‘Villain’ by Shuichi Yoshida

This book looks at the outfall of the murder of a young woman on a series of characters, including the woman’s hardworking parents, her friends and the accused, and shows how they adjust to their changed circumstances. So while there is a crime at the heart of this novel, it’s not a police procedural and it’s fairly obvious from the start who committed the crime, though we are never completely sure why he did it. Again, it’s another fascinating examination of the sociological and psychological impact of a crime on a community.

Have any of these books piqued your interest, or have you read any of them? Can you recommend any other crime books from Japan that are worth reading?

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), BIPOC 2021, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Japan, Mieko Kawakami, Picador

‘Heaven’ by Mieko Kawakami

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 167 pages; 2021. Translated from the Japanese by Sam Brett and David Boyd. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven is a novella about the impact of bullying on a teenage boy and how his friendship with a girl suffering similar schoolyard abuse gives him the courage to keep on going.

It’s set in the early 1990s, before the advent of the internet, social media and smartphones (which would arguably make things worse or, at least, different), and presents a world that is both violent and nihilistic.

A secret alliance

Narrated by “Eyes”, a 14-year-old boy, who is ruthlessly bullied at school because he has a lazy eye, it charts his last tormented year at middle school before graduating to high school. His only friend is Kojima, a female classmate, who is dubbed “Hazmat” by the same bullies because she supposedly smells and has dirty hair.

Their friendship is a secret one because to admit their solidarity would only encourage the students who persecute them so shamelessly already. The pair communicate via notes and letters and meet in the stairwell when no one is looking. They even go on a train trip together, a journey that solidifies their alliance and helps them get to know each other outside of the classroom.

There’s not much of a plot. The storyline simply highlights how Eyes is treated by his fellow students and shows how he tries to rise above his situation by not fighting back, accepting their terrible treatment of him in silence and nursing his pain alone.

When he does build up the courage to confront one of his attackers, following a distressing scene in a school gymnasium (be warned, there are some violent scenes in this book – they’re not gratuitous, but they are confronting), he’s essentially gaslit into thinking he’s got it all wrong.

“You said we do it for no reason, right? I agree with that, but so what? What’s wrong with that? I mean, if you want us to leave you alone, you’re totally free to want that. But I’m totally free to ignore what you want. That’s where things don’t add up. You’re mad that the world doesn’t treat you like you want to be treated, right? Like, right now is a good example. You can walk up to me and say you want to talk, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen. Know what I mean?”
I replayed in my head what Momose had just said and looked at his hands.
“More than that, though,” he said. “I got to tell you. This whole thing about you looking the way you look. You make it sound like that’s why we act the way we do, but that’s got nothing to do with it.”

Eventually, even his friendship with Kojima begins to flounder when he realises that she’s not there to support him to escape the bullies but to merely comfort herself by the idea she’s not suffering alone.

Bullying behaviour

This Japanese novella, expertly translated by Sam Brett and David Boyd, is a good examination of bullying behaviour — why people do it, how they get away with it and the long-term serious repercussions on those who suffer it.

There’s an alarming absence of adult intervention, whether by parent or teacher, which is probably indicative of a problem that can go undetected for a long time if the perpetrators are careful and the victim is too scared to speak up.

Heaven is profound and disturbing, but it’s also melancholy, intimate and tender, and there’s something about the hypnotic prose style that gets under the skin and leaves a lasting impression.

And thankfully, despite all the violence and the terror, the story ends on a bittersweet, hopeful note…

This is my 8h book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I accepted this one for review because regular readers of this blog will know I am quite partial to Japanese fiction. I’d been quite keen to read Kawakami’s previous novel, ‘Breasts and Eggs’, now. This is also my 7th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Keigo Higashino, Little, Brown, Publisher, Setting

‘Newcomer’ by Keigo Higashino

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little Brown Book Group; 353 pages; 2018. Translated from the Japanese by Giles Murray.

Keigo Higashino is a Japanese crime writer who likes to spin his tales in a completely different way to most crime writers. He basically takes the rules of the genre, rips them up and throws them away — and then does things completely on his own terms.

Whodunnit with an unusual structure

Newcomer, which is set in Tokyo, is a whodunnit but the narrative is structured in an unusual way: each phase of the police investigation into the homicide of a 40-something woman is told as if it’s a standalone short story. With each new story, or chapter, we learn something new about the case as the list of suspects grows longer and longer.

The investigation is led by Detective Kyochiro Kaga, a sharp-minded, highly experienced policeman who has just been transferred to the Tokyo Police Department and who was first introduced to readers in Higashino’s previous novel Malice. (Newcomer is billed as book 2 in the Kyochiro Kaga series but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy this one.)

As his investigation into the murder of divorcee Mineko Mitsui proceeds, more and more potential suspects enter the fray to the point where you wonder whether he is ever going to be able to weed out the real culprit.

The evocative setting — the Nihonbashi area of Tokyo, which is dominated by family-run shops and all-night bars, and is, I believe, one of the original areas of the city — lends an olde-worlde charm to the tale as Kaga slowly but surely traces a series of items found in the dead woman’s home back to the shops in which they were purchased.

His logical and methodical inquiry eventually allows him to rule out several suspects, and the denouement comes in the form of a final chapter that reveals who did it, how they did it and why.

A bit of a plod

Regretfully, I didn’t find this book as exciting as previous Higashino novels I have read, and for the most part, I found it a little dull and plodding. I kept wondering how he was going to tie up all the loose ends, and by the time he did so, I’d become bored by the storyline. It definitely lacks tension.

But it’s an intriguing read in terms of characterisation, scene-setting and plotting. Higashino wields his pen carefully, giving us a rather charming, calm and sensible hero, who uses his brain and his wits to put all the clues together without fuss or agenda. In many ways, Kaga might be a little too nice to be a police detective!

Newcomer — the title refers to Kaga being the new man in the police department — is an unconventional mix of cosy crime and modern-day police procedural. It’s an unconventional mystery full of red herrings, subtle reveals and a suspect list so long the book comes with a dramatis personae right upfront. It might be for you if you’re a crime reader looking for something a little on the unusual side.

This is my 2nd book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 7 February 2021.

Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Vintage, Yoko Ogawa

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 274 pages; 2020. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is a brilliant mix of The Diary of Anne Frank meets George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. There are echoes of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and it also shares similar themes with Richard Flanagan’s latest novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, too.

And yet for all that, this is a wholly original dystopian novel like no other.

As Madeleine Thein writes in her review, published in the Guardian in 2019, it is a “rare work of patient and courageous vision” and one that “can be experienced as fable or allegory, warning and illumination”.

Written in deceptively simple yet hypnotic prose, there’s a dream-like quality to the text, yet the subject matter is quite nightmarish.

Isolated island life

Set on an island in a vaguely familiar dystopian future, residents are collectively forced to forget certain objects, including ribbons, roses, maps and calendars as if they never existed. This forgetting is enforced by a mysterious and draconian force called the Memory Police. Those who disobey, or who are unable to forget, are rounded up and “disappeared”.

The story is narrated by an unnamed writer who is working on a novel about a woman who takes typing lessons in a disused lighthouse. Excerpts of this novel (which are published within the novel) show the power of books and writing to preserve the past unless, of course, they are made to disappear, too.

The book’s editor, the kindly R, is one of those unfortunate people who can’t forget what he is supposed to forget and he’s running the risk of being forcefully made to disappear. The writer makes a bold decision to take him away from his pregnant wife and hide him in her house in a makeshift room hidden under the floorboards. She enlists one of her most trusted friends, an elderly man she’s known since childhood, to help her set up the room so it’s functional and soundproof, and together they smuggle R into hiding.

It’s an astonishing risk to take. For R, living in such cramped conditions, with no access to daylight and separated from his wife and child, there is little to occupy his time — except to edit the book.

It was better for him, too, to have work to do. The healthiest way of living in the secret room was to wake in the morning thinking about the things that had to be done during the day; then, at night before going to bed, to check that everything had been accomplished, whether satisfactorily or not. Moreover, the morning agenda needed to be as concrete as possible, and the tasks ideally involved some sort of reward, no matter how small. Finally, the day’s worked needed to tire him out in both body and spirit.

Jeopardy comes in many forms over the course of the novel. R’s hiding place is under constant threat of exposure, while a clandestine love affair increases the danger. Rare objects, including a harmonica, are discovered in the writer’s home and while she does not understand their use, it’s clear that just having them in her possession puts her in peril. Meanwhile, more and more objects are consigned to history by the Memory Police, including books and libraries, seemingly at random, creating chaos, confusion and instability.

Echoes of the past

First published in the author’s native Japan in 1994, The Memory Police was translated into English last year and was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize.

It’s a brilliant treatise on totalitarianism, loss and control, about the ways in which humans often obliterate all that is good in the world, and the resilience of ordinary people to survive against the odds. It can also be seen as an allegory on growing old and dying. Indeed, there’s a lot to unpick in this relatively short but powerful novel, which is told with grace and flair.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but recognise elements of human history we would probably rather forget — the constant hunt for food reminiscent of the North Korean regime; the rounding up of people for being different has echoes of Nazi Germany; the constant rewriting of history is very Orwellian; even R’s new life in hiding could be seen as a bit like living in Covid-19 lockdown — so perhaps the book’s overriding message is the importance to remember bad things in order not to repeat them in the future.

I definitely want to read this one again. Expect to see this on my top 10 at the end of the year. Yes, it really is that good.

This is my 4th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year, and it is my 5th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. 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, BIPOC 2021, Bitter Lemon Press, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Publisher, Reading Projects, Riku Onda, Setting, TBR 21

‘The Aosawa Murders’ by Riku Onda

Fiction – paperback; Bitter Lemon Press; 346 pages; 2020. Translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts.

The Aosowa Murders by Riku Ondo turns the normal conventions of the crime novel on its head. Featuring multiple voices and multiple time frames, the story does not have a neat ending. It leaves the reader with more questions than answers. I finished it a week ago and I am still trying to process what happened.

Death by poison

The central focus of the story is a devastating mass murder in which 17 people (including six children) are poisoned and die agonising deaths at a family celebration in an impressive villa by the sea. The prime suspect is the family’s beautiful and bewitching blind daughter, Hisako, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill the loved ones who have given her such a comfortable and “normalised” life?

But The Aosowa Murders is not really a whodunnit because it emerges that another suspect — a young courier who delivered the drinks which were laced with poison — confessed to the crime in a suicide note he left behind when he hanged himself.

Instead, this novel is really about the long-lasting impact of such a horrendous crime on those directly affected by it, including the police who carried out the investigation, those who knew the family well (they were prominent doctors and ran a health clinic) and the local community.

It’s told retrospectively, several decades after the crime, and is as much about a young university student, Makiko, a childhood friend of Hisako’s who wrote a best-selling fictionalised account of what happened, as it is about the actual event and its aftermath.

Eye-witness testimonies

The book is structured around a series of testimonies in which the interviewer remains absent, so you are never quite sure what the questions are or who is asking them. This lends a one-sided dimension to each chapter, but this multi-voiced approach allows the reader to put together a narrative in his or her head, joining the dots and solving the crime without anything being spelt out by the author herself.

This makes for a challenging read, but it’s a refreshing take on the crime novel. It’s almost as if you become the detective and with each passing chapter you gather more “evidence”, some of which is pivotal to the crime and some of which is irrelevant — and the fun is trying to determine which is which.

It’s an excellent portrait of contemporary Japan, its manners and morals, but I think the biggest (and most important) question it raises is this: how do you make sense of a terrible crime if you don’t understand the motive behind it?

If you like books that make you think, then The Aosowa Murders is a good one to tackle, but if you prefer your crime stories to be relatively straightforward with all the loose ends tied up by the end, then this is probably not for you.

The Aosawa Murders won the 59th Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel and was selected by the New York Times as one of the most notable books of 2020. Lizzy liked it too.

This is my 3rd book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year, and it is my 2nd book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. 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, 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, Durian Sukegawa, Fiction, Japan, Oneworld, Publisher, Setting

‘Sweet Bean Paste’ by Durian Sukegawa

Sweet Bean Paste

Fiction – paperback; OneWorld; 224 pages; 2017. Translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts.

Hot on the heels of my thoughts on Convenience Store Woman, here are my thoughts on another rather delightful Japanese novel in English translation.

Author Durian Sukegawa says he wrote Sweet Bean Paste as an attempt to explore “the meaning of life with a fresh perspective”.

The result is a bittersweet tale about finding friendship in the unlikeliest of places, living your best life, no matter how humble or difficult that might be, and the importance of doing what you love and making a contribution to society.

The confectioner and the old lady

Written in gently nuanced prose, the book focuses on two main characters —Sentaro, who runs a Doraharu shop selling dorayaki (pancakes filled with sweet bean paste), and Tokue, a 76-year-old lady who enters his shop and offers to work for him — and a subsidiary character, school girl Wakana, who is a regular customer.

Initially, Sentaro is skeptical of Tokue’s offer. He’s got a troubled past and is only working in the shop to pay off a gambling debt. He doesn’t want to do anything to rock the boat or put his job in jeopardy.

But when Tokue not only offers to work at a vastly reduced rate but happily prepares a batch of sweet bean paste that tastes incredible, he can hardly say no. She’s hired, but on one condition: she must not be seen by the customers because she has severely deformed hands that might turn people off.

Before long, Sentaro is selling more and more dorayaki thanks to Tokue’s delicious bean paste, while Tokue, desperate to help out in the increasingly busy front-of-house, ignores Sentaro’s rule and begins spending time with the customers — mainly schoolgirls who love her tendency to chat and offer kindly advice.

**Spoiler alert**

To temper the risk of the story becoming overly cloying (and sickly sweet) at this stage, the author delivers a sucker-punch about half way through: we discover that Tokue’s hands became deformed when she contracted Hansen’s disease (once known as leprosy) as a young girl. She’s no longer infectious, but rumours have spread and now the confectionary shop’s booming business is on the slide.

Sweet Bean Paste then morphs into a melancholic, deeply thoughtful rumination on what it is to be an outcast and survive. It shows how the stigma of Hansen’s disease had long-lasting and often tragic repercussions on patients who were forcibly removed from their families and made to live in state-run sanatoriums for decades — often long after being cured.

While there’s an element of spirituality that runs throughout the narrative — about the simple ways in which we find purpose in our lives —  it’s done with a lightness of touch, so it never feels too obvious.

I found it a rather delightful read, both poignant and poetic, the kind of story that is super easy to read but stays with you long after you’ve reached the final page.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Japan, Portobello Books, Publisher, Sayaka Murata, Setting

‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman

Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 163 pages; 2018. Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

If someone derives satisfaction from their job, if they are highly motivated to do it well, does it matter if that job offers no prospect of promotion?

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman poses this question in an oblique way. It also asks what is normal? And challenges many assumptions about how people choose to live their lives.

Narrated by 38-year-old Keiko, it tells the story of a single woman who has worked at the same convenience store since it first opened 18 years ago.

But while Keiko is happy in her role — she’s dedicated, efficient and diligent, always putting the store before herself, with no social life of which to speak  — her family are worried about her lack of ambition. They also fret that she’s never had a boyfriend and is unlikely to get married.

“Well, how are you?” my mother went on. “You spend all day on your feet, Keiko. It must be tiring. Um, how have things been lately? What’s new?”
Hearing her pry like this, I got the feeling that somehow she was still hoping for some kind of new development in my life. She was probably a bit tired of how I hadn’t progressed in eighteen years.

Eventually Keiko finds a radical solution to her family’s concerns and asks an ex-coworker to move in with her under the pretence he is her new boyfriend. While it gets her married sister off her back, it poses a whole new set of problems.

Odd one out

Written in a deadpan style, free from adjectives and full of quirky observations, mainly about human behaviour and societal expectations, Convenience Store Woman is a quick, witty and quietly profound read about what it is to be different and a little at odds with the rest of the world.

On the surface it feels absurd, slightly unnatural, but underneath it has a very human heart. I liked it a lot and was charmed by Keiko’s steadfast determination to do her own thing.

I’m not the only one who enjoyed this novella: Tony, from Tony’s Book World, has reviewed it favourably, too.

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, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Kanae Minato, Mulholland Books, Publisher, Setting

‘Penance’ by Kanae Minato

Penance

Fiction – paperback; Mulholland Books; 240 pages; 2017. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel.

A few years ago I read Kanae Minato’s debut novel Confessions about a teacher who accuses two of her pupils of a terrible crime, then seeks vengeance on them. It was a compelling read, but incredibly dark — and it didn’t exactly chime well with my moral compass.

Penance is Minato’s second novel. It charts similar territory but isn’t quite as dark. It still deals with the notion of vengeance and murder, and posits the idea that if you’re a witness in a crime case but can’t remember crucial details that may help catch the culprit, then you’re not much better than the criminal who carried out the act.

It’s the kind of story that throws up lots of questions about moral culpability, justice and retribution, and it makes for yet another compelling read.

Murder of a young girl

The book pivots around one central act: the murder of a 10-year-old school girl in rural Japan. Her four friends — Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko — are with her when a stranger approaches them and asks for help.

Civic-minded Emily goes off with him, leaving her friends behind. She is never seen alive again.

The surviving girls, horrified by what has happened, cannot recall the face of the stranger and offer little in the way of detail that might help track him down.

A couple of years later Emily’s mother, half demented by grief, needs someone to blame. She approaches the girls with an ultimatium: if they do not find the murderer they must atone for their crimes, otherwise she will have her revenge on them.

Mosaic structure

The novel is divided into six chapters. Each character — Emily, her four friends (now in their mid-20s) and Emily’s mother — get their turn to tell their story. Not only do we hear their different viewpoints about what happened on the day of the murder, we learn how the murder impacted the rest of their lives. This does mean that some events are hashed over again and again, but this repetition doesn’t detract from the overall narrative: it simply allows you to see how different people interpret the same event in different ways.

To complicate matters further, each chapter is told in a different style — for instance, one takes the form of a letter to Emily’s mother, another is a confession to a counsellor — which can make Penance feel less like a novel and more like a collection of short stories.

But the overall effect works. Minato weaves a deft tapestry of human emotions, motivations and contradictions. And in her stripped back, almost limpid prose, she’s able to show how different personalities not only react to a single event in different ways, but she expertly charts how the girls’ lives and career paths veer off in different directions in the years following Emily’s death. This makes for a powerful read.

A crime novel with a difference

Perhaps the book’s main failing is its slide into becoming ludicrous — it’s difficult to elaborate without giving away spoilers. But let’s just say the ways in which the girls atone for not catching Emily’s murderer lead them to carry out their own devastating acts with long-lasting repercussions on other people.

Penance is not your typical crime novel. The murderer himself is almost incidental to the story: it’s not about who did it, but what happens to those who survive. A subsidiary narrative thread that runs throughout each of the girl’s individual stories fleshes out the idea that we are all capable of hideous acts if the circumstances are right.

It’s not quite as brilliant as Confessions, but this is an intriguing read if you’re looking for something a little different.