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.