Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Kanae Minato, Mulholland Books, Publisher, Setting

‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato


Fiction – Kindle edition; Mulholland Books; 240 pages; 2014. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Japanese do a nice line in dark fiction, whether crime or otherwise — think Keigo HigashinoShuichi YoshidaFuminori NakamuraNatsuo Kirino and Yoko Ogawa, to name just a handful.

Kanae Minato’s debut novel, Confessions, is no exception. This revenge tale, set in a middle school in a small town, explores issues relating to morality, justice and child crime. It’s a cracking story about adolescence gone wrong, with lots of unexpected plot twists and horrifying outcomes, but it’s probably one of the darkest books I’ve read in quite awhile.

And having read it back-to-back with another dark story of vengeance — Harriet Lane’s Her — I think that’s my quota of malicious tales done for the year.

Teacher seeks vengeance

The book opens with a grief-stricken schoolteacher, Yuko Moriguchi, addressing the pupils in her class on the last day of her teaching career — she’s decided to retire following the untimely death of her beloved four-year-old daughter, who was found drowned in the school’s swimming pool.

What begins as a relatively pleasant farewell speech descends into a bitter diatribe in which she accuses two of her students of murdering her daughter. She doesn’t name them, but they can be clearly identified by the things she says.

Because the age of criminal responsibility in Japan is 14 and the accused are just 13, Moriguchi decides to take the law into her own hands and dishes out her own form of justice. It turns out to be a rather cruel and unusual punishment — in fact, it’s downright jaw-droppingly horrific.

From this one act of vengeance, things slowly spiral out of control and by the book’s end there is at least one other person dead and another locked away in an asylum — which begs the question: would the outcomes have been any better under the normal channels of justice?

Five different perspectives

The book is structured around six longish chapters, the first and last of which are told from the teacher’s perspective. The intervening chapters are told from other character’s points of view, so that we get to hear from each of the accused, student A and student B; the mother of student B; and the class president.

While this means some scenes are retold over and over again — how the body was discovered, for instance —  the new perspectives help deliver new insights into how others are affected by events. Their reactions and their motivations aren’t always predictable — sometimes they’re simply terrifying.

It’s written in a stripped back, flat, detached prose style typical of modern Japanese fiction, which only adds to the chilling nature of the storyline.

Big themes

And while it could be described as a quiet and understated novel, it deals with some surprisingly big themes — How do you teach children right from wrong? How should society deal with child criminals?  What barriers should there be between teachers and their students?

It depicts a society falling apart at the seams, where children either seek fame and glory by committing the most horrendous crimes or they drop out of society altogether by locking themselves away to become hikikomori (“shut-ins”). It paints a rather bleak picture of modern Japan. It’s not cheerful reading by any stretch of the imagination — the morality of many of the characters is dubious at best.

However, as a page turner that treads spine-chilling territory based on the twisted behaviour of a handful of deliciously dark characters, it’s rather superb. And I’m not the only one who thinks so: according to the “About the Author” page in my edition, Confessions has sold more than three million copies in Japan and has won several literary awards, including the Radio Drama Award, the Detective Novel Prize for New Writers and the National Booksellers’ Award. In 2009 it was adapted into a film directed by Tetsuya Nakashima.

1001 books, Arthur Golden, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Japan, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 497 pages; 2005.

Remember that project I set myself at the start of the year, the one in which I read at least a dozen books from my TBR that are listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You DieWell, this is book four (I’m woefully behind) — and what a mixed bag it turned out to be.

Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha seems to be one of those novels that everyone has read. It has even been turned into a Hollywood film. For some inexplicable reason, both have passed me by.

Written as a fictional memoir (including a fictional “translator’s note” at the beginning), the book tells the extraordinary story of one woman’s life as a geisha.

Sold into slavery

Chiyo, a pretty grey-eyed child, is born into an impoverished fishing family living in a village on the coast of the Sea of Japan. But as her mother lies dying, her aged father sells nine-year-old Chiyo and her older sister to a man with connections to the top geisha houses in the Gion district of Tokyo.

The sisters are separated, and Chiyo — now renamed Sayuri — must learn to adjust to a new, often cruel, way of life as a young slave in a geisha house.

The book follows her education and “apprenticeship”, describes the auctioning of her virginity and her subsequent rise as one of  Japan’s most celebrated geishas.

Japanese history

Sayuri’s story spans 25 years — from 1929 to a few years after the end of the Second World War — and provides a fascinating glimpse, not only of the secret world of the geisha but of Japan’s history during that era.

Boxall describes it as an important book for its “glimpses into a way of life that has all but disappeared”.

Memoirs of a Geisha shows the reader how these women were exploited and degraded, but it shies away from going into too much sordid detail. It also shows how these women complied with a version of womanhood that many men expected — they were to be pretty, enchanting, entertaining and erotic, but they were not to be independent or to live lives of their own. But by the same token, successful geisha were looked after and enjoyed a comfortable existence.

An engaging voice

I initially fell in love with this book. I enjoyed learning about the rules and rituals of life as an apprentice geisha and was mesmerised by the narrator’s engaging voice. It is a testament to Golden’s skill as an author that he is able to pull off such an authentic female voice — and to do it with so much empathy and without casting judgement or aspersions.

But as the story wore on I began to tire of its repetitive nature. While Golden provides some narrative tension in the form of petty rivalries between certain geisha — the geisha world is highly competitive — there’s only so much squabbling, trickery and cruel gamesmanship I can take. Dare I confess that almost 500 pages of it is far too much?

Perhaps because I had already read a real memoir of a geisha’s life — Sayo Masuda’s Autobiography of a Geisha — it felt like I’d read this story before. But on the whole, this is an intimate account of a secretive way of life. Not only does it hone in on historical and cultural truths, but it is also an epic human story about surviving against the odds.

‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden, first published in 1997, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as providing “a disturbing view of the place of women in Japanese society and culture”.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Malaya, Myrmidon Books, Publisher, Setting, Tan Twan Eng

‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ by Tan Twan Eng


Fiction – paperback; Myrmidon Books; 448 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. It is a beautiful tale set in the central highlands of Malaya about memory, forgetting, war, politics, atonement, redemption, forgiveness, gardening — and the Japanese art of horimono tattoos.

A judge looks back on her life

The story revolves around Teoh Yun Ling, the sole survivor of a secret Japanese slave-labour camp, who takes early retirement from her career as a judge at the Supreme Court in Kuala Lumpur. For the first time in almost 35 years, she returns to Yugiri, in the Cameron Highlands, where the beautiful Japanese garden called “Evening Mists” is located.

Six tall, narrow stones huddled into a miniature limestone mountain range in the centre of the pond. On the opposite bank stood the pavilion, duplicated in the water so that it appeared like a paper lantern hanging in mid-air. A willow grew a few feet away from the pavilion’s side, its branches sipping from the pond.

It was here, during the Malayan Emergency, that she met the garden’s designer, Nakamura Aritomo, and tried to convince him to create another Japanese garden as a tribute to her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo, the exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan, declined, but he agreed to take her on as an apprentice so that she could learn the necessary skills to create the garden herself.

From this narrative thread, other narrative threads begin to spool out, including: Teoh’s time in the slave-labour camp; her years living on the Majuba Tea Estate in the Cameron Highlands (where the threat of murder and kidnap by communist guerrillas put her life in constant danger); and her present situation in which she tries to fob off an historian, Professor Yoshikawa, seeking permission to use Aritomo’s artworks (woodblock prints) — now in her ownership — in a book he is writing to prove his hypothesis that the emperor’s gardener was also a tattoo artist.

These threads are told in a kind of random fashion, because they are revealed in a memoir that Judge Teoh is hurriedly writing before the illness with which she has been diagnosed leaves her unable to read or write. That illness is just one of many pieces of information she withholds from her friends. As the narrative gently unfurls we discover more of these secrets. It is not that she is an unreliable narrator, but that she only tells you what she wants you to know when she wants you to know it.

Surprise and mystery

As a result this is a novel full of surprises.

It is also a novel fully of mystery. I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say that midway through the novel Aritoma disappears — and no-one knows what happens to him. If he was enigmatic in life, he is even more enigmatic in death.

There’s also the curious notion of how Judge Teoh managed to escape from a camp that no-one has ever heard of and one that even she cannot locate. And why does the Majuba Tea Estate seem immune to the war raging between the British and the Malayan nationalists — exactly which side is the owner on?

The garden as a focal point

The thing I most loved about The Garden of Evening Mists was the way in which Tan Twan Eng describes the garden and the art of creating it. I admit that I am a sucker for Japanese gardens, having learnt about them at university (as part of my studies in landscape architecture) and he brings to life their beauty, elegance and symbolism in an incredibly visual — and sensual — way.

And Judge Teoh is a wonderful creation; a Straits Chinese woman who hates the Japanese for what they did to her (and her sister) in the camp, but is able to put that aside to work closely with a Japanese man — even though his very presence reminds her of what it was like to be “a prisoner of the Japs”.

Sometimes the narrative falls into a slight lull, but the multi-layered storylines provide sufficient intrigue to maintain the reader’s interest.

Despite the gentleness of the prose, this is a book about extreme violence and cruelty in all its many facets.

But it does not paint things in black and white. This is a book full of light and shade, with the garden as its central focus, for it is the act of building the garden which helps heal the psychological wounds of both Judge Teoh and Aritomo. Later, it becomes a refuge, a place of solace, from the war happening in the hills beyond, and later still, it provides comfort to an ill woman trying to make sense of her extraordinary life.

Austria, Author, Book review, Edmund De Waal, France, History, Japan, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance’ by Edmund De Waal


Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 368 pages; 2011.

Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes won the 2010 Costa Biography Award. And yet this book is not a biography as such. It’s a mix of memoir and history, with a little bit of art and some travel thrown in for good measure.

The hare of the title is carved out of ivory and is one of 264 netsuke that Edmund De Waal inherited from his Uncle Iggie. Netsuke are miniature sculptures from Japan, highly collectible and presumably worth a lot of money. De Waal, who is a potter by trade, is obviously enamoured of them and is keen to learn how these intriguing items came to pass. He also wants to know how they entered his family: where did his Uncle Iggie get them from?

While the book appears to centre on this special collection of netsuke — their origin, the ways in which they have been passed through three generations of De Waal’s family — their appearance in the text is fleeting. This is more a story about De Waal’s complicated, but intriguing, family tree — he is the direct descendant of the Ephrussi family, a Jewish banking and oil dynasty that originated in Odessa, Ukraine, rose to power in Paris and Vienna, but then crumbled when the Nazis seized their assets, including the family’s famous bank, during the Second World War.

De Waal chooses to structure his book by starting near the top of his family tree, rather than working backwards as one might expect (or perhaps I’ve just watched way too many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?) This is a gamble, because what happens if this person is the most interesting relative of the lot? Everyone else will pale by comparison and the narrative tension will be lost.

Arguably, Charles Ephrussi, whom De Waal introduces us to in Part One, is the most interesting relative he has in his tree. Paris-based Charles (1849-1905) is an art historian, critic and collector, who is immersed in the Impressionist era. He buys work from the likes of Manet, Pisarro and Degas and is depicted in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. If that’s not enough, he is also the inspiration for Charles Swann in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He even starts his own periodical and becomes editor several years later.

It is Charles who buys the netsuke from Japan at a time when Japanese art was coming into fashion. And it is Charles who passes them onto a Vienna-based cousin, as a wedding present, setting them on a journey that is to stretch for more than 100 years.

I have to admit that there were times when I found this book slightly tedious — and dull. De Waal has a tendency to be self-indulgent, to explore the things that interest him rather than thinking about his reader, but his prose style is elegant and effortless.

Every now and then, however, there are little bursts of excitement — and shock — that lift the text out of the doldrums and give the narrative some extra impetus. I was particularly rivetted by the section in which the Nazis seized the Ephrussi family’s palace, depriving them of their property and belongings. For a family so wealthy and privileged it must have seemed an astonishingly rude — and frightening — shock from which they never fully recovered.

But, overall, I had reservations about this book, perhaps because I’m not much of a “thing” person — material objects and accumulation of wealth don’t interest me in the slightest. The Hare with the Amber Eyes resonated more with me as a history of anti-semitism in the 20th century rather than a “biography” of netsuke. It’s an interesting book, but it’s also a strange one, too.

1001 books, Alessandro Baricco, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Silk’ by Alessandro Baricco


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 104  pages; 1997. Translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman.

Alessandro Baricco’s Silk is a powerful and erotic tale that reveals how one man’s desire threatens to ruin his life.

It is 1861 and Hervé Joncour is a silk breeder from France happily married to the beautiful Helene. Compelled to travel illegally to Japan alone in search of disease-free silkworms, Hervé comes across a “girl who does not have oriental eyes” and, despite not exchanging one word with her, falls deeply in love.

Over the course of several years, Hervé continues to make return trips to Japan in order to buy more silkworms and to lay his eyes on the beautiful and intriguing woman to whom he has become enthralled.

When the woman gives him a note that reveals her love for him, Hervé finds his life in France unravelling as he becomes more obsessed with the woman at “the end of the earth”. He channels his frustrations into building a beautiful park in the grounds of his home and takes his wife on exotic holidays to hide his unhappiness.

When a second erotically charged letter arrives from his lover he is distraught by the contents, for while it professes love and devotion, it also warns Hervé to never seek contact with her again…

In the style of an old-fashioned fable, Baricco has crafted a beautiful and mesmerising novella. Some of the chapters are so short they read more like poems, which greatly adds to the charm and mystique of the story. The writing is hypnotic, repetitive and deeply affecting.

I read this book in under an hour and was incredibly moved by the love affair. And the shock ending left me stunned, so I wasn’t quite sure if I had fully understood what had happened: had I read too much into it?

Ultimately, this is an astonishing piece of writing. Heart-breaking, bewitching and passionate.

‘Silk’, by Alessandro Baricco, first published in 1996, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it states the story is set in 1861, the year “when Flaubert was writing Salammbo, electricity was still only a future project, and on the other side of the ocean, Lincoln was engaged in a Civil War”.

Author, Book review, Chang-Rae Lee, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘A Gesture Life’ by Chang-Rae Lee


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Putnam Inc USA; 356 pages; 2000.

Every so often you come across a book that makes you rejoice in the sheer beauty of the English language and the power of the novel to change your perspective on so many different things.

In A Gesture Life Chang-Rae Lee has delivered one of the most elegantly restrained pieces of fiction I have ever read and yet, despite the unhurried prose, it brims with suspense, so much so I was reluctant to put the book down and read it within a matter of days.

It’s a rare, almost perfect novel that provides such an eloquent insight into the nature of human relationships that I don’t honestly know how to condense the magic of this profoundly moving and deeply unsettling story into one short review that will do A Gesture Life any kind of justice.

In fact, I’d argue that the blurb on my Penguin edition, doesn’t even come close to explaining what this story is about, and I suspect that most people would overlook the book entirely should they stumble upon it in a bookstore or library. Personally, I can’t even remember why I bought it, other than the ringing one-word endorsements — “Stunning,” New York Times Book Review; “Unforgettable,” USA Today; “Mesmerising,” San Francisco Chronicle Book Review — on the front cover must have spoken to me on some deeply unconscious level. Even so, this book lay unread in my bedside cabinet for nine months before I decided to pick it up.

Once I picked it up, I was taken on a sagacious journey that allowed me to walk in another man’s shoes. The fact that that man was an elderly Japanese-American speaks volumes for Chang-rae Lee’s abilities as a story teller.

Weaving dual narratives, set a generation apart, Lee is able to build up a rounded portrait of a man, Franklin ‘Doc’ Hata, who spends his life adapting to a new culture by behaving with abject politeness in order to be accepted, first, as an orphaned Korean boy adopted by a Japanese family, and then as an immigrant in America where he runs a medical supply store in a well-to-do suburb of New York.

Here in Bedley Run ‘Doc’ leads a quiet, tranquil and commercially successful existence. He buys an expensive house, adopts a Korean girl, Sunny, and becomes romantically involved with a local widow.

But ‘Doc’s life, his passivity, his politeness, covers a much deeper malaise that is revealed through a series of seamless flashbacks. These reveal the horrors he confronted while a medical officer with the Imperial Army during the Second World War. While interned in a Burmese camp he oversaw the health of a group of ‘comfort girls’, young Korean women held captive to’service’ the soldiers, which deeply disturbed him.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that it is these expertly written flashbacks that make this novel what it is. They are superbly paced and enrich the present story by giving the reader little nuggets of information that help illuminate Doc’s modern-day behaviour: the shaky rapport he has with his daughter, why he values his standing in the Bedley Run community, how he cannot allow himself to be emotionally frank with his lover – or anyone else for that matter.

The impact of the flashbacks is heightened by the horror of the narrative which focuses on some astonishingly brutal, gruesome and obscene scenes, some of which reduced me to tears. This is in stark contrast to the suburban melancholia that characterises the rest of the book.

A Gesture Life is a beautifully moving novel that weaves the past with the present. The longing, regret and sadness resonate off the page. But it’s not without hope – friendship, forgiveness, redemption and atonement are all explored. And by the last page you can’t help thinking that Doc’s pain might have been worth it in the end…

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Susanna Jones

‘The Earthquake Bird’ by Susanna Jones


Fiction – paperback; Picador; 272 pages; 2002.

Did she do it, or didn’t she? This is the one question that propels the reader to keep turning the pages in this unusual but gripping murder mystery by Susanna Jones.

I read this book in one sitting — okay, so I was trapped on a long-haul flight from London to Melbourne, but even if I wasn’t I’m sure I would have read The Earthquake Bird just as quickly.

Set in Japan, it tells the story of an ex-pat English woman, Lucy Fly, working in Tokyo as a translator. She is arrested by police on suspicion of murdering a fellow English backpacker. What the reader is never quite sure of is this: is Lucy telling the truth? And why did she leave Yorkshire all those years ago? Why is she no longer in touch with her family? What exactly is she hiding?

Susanna Jones has written a sparse but intriguing novel with a menacing undertone throughout. As well as being a gripping, intelligent read, I found the insights into Japanese culture equally interesting. It’s also very reminiscent of Losing Gemma by Katy Gardner.

But don’t just take my word for it:  this book won the CWA John Creasey Memorial Dagger for Best First Crime Novel of 2001.