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 Higashino, Shuichi Yoshida, Fuminori Nakamura, Natsuo 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.
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.