Penance

Title: Penance
Japanese Title: 贖罪 (Shokuzai)
Author: Kanae Minato (湊 かなえ)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2012 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Pages: 229

Fifteen years ago, in an unnamed rural town, a girl named Emily was raped and murdered. Although four of her friends saw the face of the man who tricked her into going off alone with him, he was never caught. Emily’s mother, driven half-crazy with grief, accused the four girls of being responsible for her daughter’s death, and they have all carried this burden with them into their adult lives. The statute of limitations on the murder is about to run out, yet its lingering effects have not yet faded. Is it possible that one of the surviving girls, now young women, holds a clue to solving the murder? If the murderer’s identity is revealed, will these women find peace, or is the cycle of violence impossible to halt?

The first four of Penance‘s five chapters are narrated from the perspectives of Emily’s friends, each of whom is haunted by the trauma of the incident.

The first narrator, Sae, is the girl who discovered Emily’s body, and the horror of what she saw has never been far from her mind. Of the four girls who survived, she’s been the most afraid that the killer will return, so she’s been determined to remain in the immature body of a child while keeping to herself and never dating. Not long after she’s hired by a firm in Tokyo, however, she’s presented with an offer of marriage she can’t refuse from a young man from her hometown. Although this man is too young to be the murderer, he possesses a significant and startling clue, and Sae comes to realize that he has a very good – and very creepy – reason for staying silent.

The second narrator, Maki, has become an elementary school teacher, and she’s recently found herself on national news after preventing a mentally ill young man from attacking her students. Far from being hailed as a hero, she is blamed for the young man’s death, and she does not deny that she took action to harm him. Addressing an assembly of parents, Maki explains what happened to her when she was a child, why she was able to act so quickly and decisively when threatened with violence, and why she bitterly regrets her behavior on the day that Emily died.

The third narrator, Akiko, is a precious human (I love her!) who sees herself as a “bear.” She has never moved out of her parents’ house, partially because of the trauma of Emily’s murder and partially because of outwardly imposed issues regarding her body image. “Boys have it easy,” she explains. “Even if they look like a bear they’re popular […] and being big isn’t a drawback the way it is for girls” (87). Akiko isn’t a shut-in, but she never went to high school and has since distanced herself from society. She now spends her days sleeping, helping her mother around the house, and working out. When her brother Koji gets married, she finds herself gradually being drawn out of her shell and becoming friends with her new sister-in-law’s child from a previous marriage, Wakaba. Wakaba’s mother Haruka has a dark past, however, and even the innocent and sweet-tempered Akiko senses that something isn’t quite right with the new family. She ends up becoming involved in their drama by accident, and disastrous consequences ensue.

The fourth narrator, Yuka, has lived her life in the shadow of her older sister, who was diagnosed with asthma at a young age. The older sister was doted on by their mother, while Yuka became the scapegoat for her mother’s frustrations. After Yuka indirectly witnessed Emily’s death, her mother began to alienate her even more, and Yuka has grown up feeling that she should have been the girl who died. Nevertheless, she has managed to achieve a modest amount of success in her life, but her resentment toward her sister has inspired her to enact a complicated plan of revenge. This brings her to the attention of the murderer, as well as Emily’s mother, who knows far more about why her daughter was killed than she has ever revealed to anyone.

The fifth narrator should perhaps remain a mystery for readers to discover for themselves. It seems as if this person will be able tie everything together… but then she doesn’t, not at all.

Penance had me enthralled from beginning to end. Although the story contains many mysteries, the identity of the murderer begins to feel irrelevant and inconsequential as the deeper tragedies of the narrators’ lives slowly unfold. The novel is are firmly grounded in contemporary Japanese society, but the characters’ anxieties are universally relatable. Penance has a lot to say about what it feels like to be an outsider, and what it feels like to live in fear of physical and social violence, and what it feels like to have difficulty communicating with the people who are close to you.

Penance is not a novel about vulnerability, however; it’s a story of resilience. It’s also a story about a group of women who learn where their breaking points lie and then purposefully put themselves into situations that trigger them to take action. By the end of the book, the narrators share more than one murder, and the loose conspiracy that arises between them is a beautiful development fashioned from intricate plot details. The strength of Kanae Minato’s writing is in her compassionate portrayal of her psychologically damaged yet intensely sympathetic characters, but that doesn’t get in her way of creating a compelling and suspenseful mystery in this brilliant literary thriller.

Under the Midnight Sun

under-the-midnight-sun

Title: Under the Midnight Sun
Japanese Title: 白夜行 (Byakuyakō)
Author: Higashino Keigo (東野 圭吾)
Translators: Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder
Publisher: Minotaur Books (a division of St. Martin’s Press)
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 1999 (Japan)
Pages: 560

This guest review is written by Tyran Grillo (@TyranGrillo on Twitter).

Although Naoko was the first novel by Keigo Higashino to appear in English, it wasn’t until The Devotion of Suspect X that an energetic following of the author grew among Anglophone readers. Subsequent novels by Japan’s salaryman-turned-mystery writer, however, left fans hungry for something different, as the clothes of his popular Detective Galileo were beginning to wear thin. Enter the gruffer Sasagaki, whose investigation of a 1973 murder in Osaka starts him on a 20-year chase after the truth. The circumstances surrounding said murder play on the classic locked room scenario, as the body of a man is discovered by children playing in an abandoned building.

Our body of interest was once the property of Yosuke Kirihara. The owner of a pawn shop, the unfortunate Yosuke has left behind a son, Ryo, and a wife, Yaeko. Sasagaki immediately suspects the latter, due to a seeming lack of emotion toward her spouse’s death. Ryo, for his part, is broken by the loss, and offers little in the way of helpful information. Even as Sasagaki fears for the boy’s future, he cannot help but marvel at Yaeko’s performance. As he watches her late husband’s funeral procession from a respectable distance, he thinks to himself, “The strange attraction of a woman in mourning…. If she’s trying to play the part of the beautiful young widow, she’s doing a knockout job.” Such statements may be common hardboiled fare but here set the tone for an unnecessarily chauvinistic slog of a novel. Sasagaki’s suspicions turn to Fumiyo Nishimoto, the last person to have seen Yosuke alive, and her daughter Yukiho is described in such perverse terms that it’s all this reader could do not to gag on their persistence.

Yukiho and Ryo, in the wake of a tragedy that has affected them both, become our main protagonists. We follow their diverging paths out of the nostalgic ignorance of the 1970s into adulthood. Along the way, Higashino introduces us to a chain of new characters, some of whom feel unnecessary as false witnesses. Each subsequent chapter throws new names into the mix to throw us off the scent. Ryo goes on to become a bootleg video game manufacturer, while Yukiho goes on to become a male fantasy of femininity.

Therein lies a fundamental problem of the narrative. Like all of the women in Higashino’s testosterone zone, she is little more than the sum of her apparently siren-esque charms, which Yukiho hones in service of being what she is called from the start: a “perfect lady.” On the surface, one might read this as a noble critique of the ways in which women are expected to live up to idealized images of beauty, but assertions of this point reach a level of absurdity that make the story nearly impossible to finish. For while Yukiho’s beauty is doubtless the very epitome of feminine perfection, she is also described as having “thorns in her eyes,” and, as our omniscient narrator so dutifully explains, a “true lady would never have eyes like that.” In other words, a “true lady” cannot be prone to dark thoughts or ever have an off day; she must maintain a perfect and consistent exterior, if only to please the men around her.

Higashino’s descriptions of the mature Yukiho are striking in their blatant vacillation between praise and condemnation, not to mention their occasional slip into racial stereotypes. To give an example: “Yukiho looked down at the table. She had long eyelashes. Some of the people in the club said she looked like one of those French porcelain dolls. The comparison was admittedly apt, with the exception of her Asian eyes.” When a younger detective by the name of Imaeda picks up where Sasagaki left off years ago, his first look at Yukiho reminds him of the “women he’d seen in old foreign films” and makes him wonder “where she got her seemingly natural elegance and grace. What had polished her to gleam so brightly?” More than overstating Yukiho’s beauty, such language elevates it to farce, so that the woman herself no longer functions as a human character.

When Yukiho finally marries, her husband Makoto cheats on her by falling for a temp who works at his company. Not only does this downplay Yukiho’s tireless attempts to live up to perfection, it undermines her intelligence in choosing a suitable life partner, a point further stressed when we learn that Makoto, who admits to having an inferiority complex around his savvy wife, has beaten her in a drunken rage that he conveniently forgets. In addition to being entirely out of her husband’s character, this disclosure comes across as a desperate attempt to elicit pity for a woman of whom by this point we have no idea what to think.

Anytime a female character is described, the reader can be sure to learn a lot about her body, and Yukiho is no exception. Rather than add to knowledge of her character, as his visualizations of men do, Higashino indulges in details that have no bearing on her psychological profile. In an awkward scene of lovemaking between Yukiho and her husband, for instance, we get this: “Her breasts were soft and bigger than you might think to look at them.” Does this detail matter? Only to a voyeuristic narrator who takes pleasure in it.

Yukiho is animalized, as when she is compared to a cat for her “feline eyes.” When she later becomes a suspect, she is variously likened to a “black rose,” an “evil flower,” and ultimately an “artificial flower,” as if the combination of intelligence and femininity were a surefire recipe for malice. Although one might argue that Higashino is simply playing with the femme fatale trope like so many before him, it is far too convenient that Yukiho’s beauty, which for most of the novel has been seen as a divine gift inherent to her every fiber, suddenly ceases to be real once it’s revealed as a mask hiding an actual human being. Such classical sexism precludes any progressive tendencies that might be attributed to Under the Midnight Sun.

The issue of its depictions of female characters aside, problems abound in the novel’s structure and pacing. Aside from being too long for its own good – there is, for example, a full page of unnecessary dialogue between Yukiho’s college classmate and a future boyfriend about how wet one gets by either walking or running in the rain – it pads out a foreseeable conclusion with unrealistic conceits. The result is a novel whose flaws are, like Yukiho’s much-discussed features, bigger than you might think to look at them.

In addition, Detective Sasagaki is a rather uninteresting lighthouse decorating a coastline of possible perpetrators. We understand that he is skillful at his job, but his obsessive interest in this case feels somewhat out of place, given what we know about him. Then again, mistakes have been made on both sides of the equals sign that would have brought his suspicions to a verdict much sooner, and perhaps subconscious awareness of this drives him to overcompensate for the embarrassment of what ends up being a simple explanation. As in any mystery of this length, it’s the actions of investigators who unwittingly build a complex wall around the truth that allow murderers to get away with what they do for so long. As the story progresses, the plot becomes so unbelievable that it feels like a letdown when one reaches the tail end of its denouement.

Ironically, the novel’s meandering tendency is also its greatest strength, and the clearest justification of its author’s fame. Higashino makes it easy to keep track of an ever-growing cast of characters – almost to a fault, because many revelations, at least to this reader, were clear from many pages away. Above all, the book provides a fascinating cross-section of late twentieth-century Japan, tracing trends in manga, television shows, video games, and other popular arenas of technological production through a key transitional period in the nation’s history. Higashino juggles multiple arcs and implications with ease, and the reverse engineering required to put them all together will satisfy even some avid mystery fans, to be sure.

As a published translator of Japanese fiction myself, I feel compelled to note that none of my criticisms are the fault of Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder, who have done an admirable job rendering Higashino’s often-terse and idiomatic prose into fluent English. The novel reads smoothly, handles cultural differences with tact, and evokes the original’s grittiness with clarity. If anything, it was the quality of their work that kept me engaged.

In the end, Under the Midnight Sun is a lackluster story with little payoff. As for the back cover copy’s comparisons of this book to Les Misérables and Crime and Punishment, I can only say these constitute a deception as criminal as the novel they are describing.

Under the Midnight Sun will be released on November 8, 2016. Review copy provided by St. Martin’s Press.

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Tyran Grillo is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, where his research focuses on the (mis)representation of animals in contemporary Japanese literature. He has translated nine books from Japanese into English, five of which have been published. The most recent of these is the science fiction masterpiece Mr. Turtle by Kitano Yūsaku. Tyran is also an avid blogger, having to date written over one million words of criticism on music, books, and film at ecmreviews.com.

Last Winter, We Parted

Last Winter We Parted

Title: Last Winter, We Parted
Japanese Title: 去年の冬、きみと別れ (Kyonen no fuyu, kimi to wakare)
Author: Nakamura Fuminori (中村 文則)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2013 (Japan)
Publisher: Soho Press
Pages: 216

A 35-year-old photographer named Kiharazaka Yūdai is charged with the murder of two young women who acted as his models. Although his work was highly regarded, he had lived mainly off the inheritance from his maternal grandfather, who had distanced himself from his daughter to such an extent that Yūdai and his sister Akari ended up growing up in an orphanage after being abandoned by their parents. He is currently being held in prison in solitary confinement, where he’s waiting to appeal his death sentence.

The narrator, an unnamed writer who is working with his editor to put out a book about Kiharazaka, visits him in prison and then begins exchanging letters. He also meets with Akari and a salaryman named Katani, who had been Kiharazaka’s only friend. Both of them believe he’s innocent, and both want to know why the narrator cares so much about him.

It turns out that both Kiharazaka and the narrator were involved with a group that had formed around a man named Suzuki, a creator of full-size silicon sex dolls. When the narrator approaches Suzuki about Kiharazaka, the craftsman talks at length about his clients and the uncanniness of his art. He also discusses the similarities between his work and Kiharazaka’s photography, bringing up Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s short story Hell Screen as a means of explaining the relationship between beauty and suffering. Suzuki doesn’t doubt that Kiharazaka murdered his photographic subjects by setting them and his studios on fire, but he suspects that there was something that drove the man’s madness other than the desire to lift himself out of an artistic slump.

There is in fact more going on, but it’s the reader who has to play detective. Interspersed between the short passages charting the narrator’s descent into an unhealthy relationship with the Kiharazaka siblings are various documents presented as numbered “archives.” Some are letters from Kiharazaka to his sister and to the narrator, while others are diary entries and Twitter feeds, and some are more difficult to classify. The relationships between the characters are not what they initially seem, with names being nothing more than empty signifiers of fractured identities, and the reader is forced to fit all of the clues together herself if she wants to understand what really happened between this small group of irreparably damaged people.

Last Winter, We Parted is misogynistic in that female characters seem to only be there to be photographed and/or fucked before being burned alive, but that comes with the territory. Let’s be real here, this is a crime novel written by a man who won the Ōe Prize, what were you expecting.

Standard literary sexism aside, Last Winter, We Parted is a small book of eerie beauty. Despite its gory subject matter, the prose is as light as falling ash. Allison Markin Powell’s translation is, as always, wonderful. This is the first book by Nakamura Fuminori I’ve read, but I’m definitely hooked on his writing.