Title: End of the World Blues
Author: Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Published: 2006 by Gollancz
Genre: science fiction, noir/hardboiled thriller
Source: ARC received ages ago when I was working at a bookstore
My Rating: 7/10
Nijie Kitagawa and Kit Nouveau are hiding from their troubles and themselves in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. Nijie is 15, she’s just stolen $15 000 000, and remembers that she’s not really Nijie, but Lady Neku, Baroness Nawa-on-ukiyo, Countess High Strange and chatelaine of Schloss Omga. At least, that’s who she was in the far-flung, end-of-the-world future that she comes from. In Tokyo she’s just a girl who calls herself Lady Neku, hiding out as a homeless cos play.
Kit Nouveau is hiding out from the law, his past and, as a result of all that, himself. He’s married to a famous Japanese artist, has a heroin addiction, owns Pirate Mary’s, an Irish bar popular with the local biker gang, and he’s sleeping with the wife of a High Yakusa ganglord. So it’s not exactly surprising when Kit is held up at gunpoint, but he doesn’t expect Lady Neku to save him in “a hurricane of white lace and scarlet silk” (33) by ramming an ivory hairpin into the mugger’s brain.
Later that night, Lady Neku slashes a gap in the air and climbs through it to the future, just as Kit’s bar blows up. When he gets out of hospital, he finds that his current life has been completely dismantled and he’s forced to face his old one: Kate O’Malley, mafia queen and mother of Kit’s ex-girlfriend Mary, tracks him down and informs him that Mary committed suicide 6 months ago. There’s a possibility that Mary might be alive (or that her death was not a suicide) and Kate wants Kit to find out what really happened.
Meanwhile, at the end of the world, Lady Neku wanders around an empty, sentient castle named Schloss Omga, trying to contact her mother and brothers. Kit accidentally broke her bracelet of memory beads, and now she’s forgotten something very important. With the castle’s gentle prompts, she thinks back to her last memory and slowly recalls the events that led to her a life in 21st century Tokyo.
The novel is composed of these two narratives, set in two different time periods and locations and occupying two different genres. The two halves, delicately linked, form a well-crafted if often perplexing literary sci fi novel that won the British Science Fiction Award in 2006. Author Jon Courtenay Grimwood – who has been nominated for the BSFA for 7 out of his 10 sf novels – described End of the World Blues as a novel “about ties. It is about the actions and emotions that tie you, and tie you down. Your family, your relationships, your past love affairs. The things you do in life that you probably shouldn’t have done, and the things you don’t do that you undoubtedly should have done” (interview with Infinity Plus)
Kit’s part of the tale is a noir thriller combined with relationship drama. Returning to London to solve Mary’s mystery, he has to confront the betrayals and mistakes of their relationship and the narrative often flashes back to the couple’s time together. At the same time, Kit’s investigation, the people he’s connected to, and the consequences of his own actions carry the story beyond a simple mystery into the a much broader, more dangerous territory of drugs and gang lords. Throughout this he has the assistance of Lady Neku, who apparently returns from the future to help him. The pair develop a cautious affection for each other, forming something like a father-daughter relationship that fill those gaps in their own lives.
Running parallel to this is Neku’s personal narrative at the end of the world. It’s this setting that makes End of the World Blues a sci fi novel. It’s so far in the future, Neku doesn’t even know what the chronological distance is. “I’m hundreds of years older than you,” she tells Kit, who doesn’t seem to take this seriously, “Thousands […] Tens of thousands. I don’t even know when this is, it’s so long ago” (200). Her home isn’t literally the end of the world though:
“That would be when the planet turned to cinder and the last wisps of atmosphere burnt off, as the seas would do first, given time. Meanwhile six overworlds kept the sun at bay and protected the planet as best they could.
Six families owned the off-world habitats, the biggest of which was High Strange, belonging to [Neku's] family, the Katchatka. And a mesh of sky ropes held a mantle of silver gauze in place, exactly a hundred kilometres above the world’s surface.” (54)
The mesh of sky ropes is what gives this place its name – “nawa-no-ukiyo”: floating rope world. Neku and her family are essentially aristocrats, responsible for managing what’s left of the world. Their castle, High Strange is sentient, run by an AI. The Kachatkas have advanced medical technology that they use to fix physiological defects and which Neku’s mother supposedly used to conceive four children after the death of her husband. They are also able to use this tech to create the kind of body they want to live in, and resurrect themselves if they die. In the first scene of her flashback, for example, Neku is recovering after slitting her own throat in an attempt to get a new body after her mother refused to give her one.
On the whole though, the book doesn’t offer that many explanatory details of its future world. Amazing as it is to the reader, to Neku and her family it’s mostly commonplace, so when she offers information it’s based on her own interests and actions, rather than functioning as exposition that’s specifically for the reader but unnecessary for the characters. If you’d like more specific details, Grimwood gives some background to the world in the interview with Infinity Plus.
At first, the two narratives are connected only by Neku’s presence in both of them, but a few additional threads gradually link the two. They share small but significant details and have parallels in their plots. Both Kit and Neku’s stories move forward by looking back to dark and troubled pasts. Both of them uncover disturbing secrets and have to confront their own roles in the tragedies that affected their lives. With two plots, two genres, and two time periods each with its own set of flashbacks, End of the World Blues is no quick, easy read and the future sections can be especially perplexing at first. Be patient, pay attention, and take note of the details even if they don’t make sense. If you read that a sentient castle is crawling up the side of a mountain because it is or used to be a snail, just go with it and keep reading. As the novel progresses information is slowly provided, although it’s seldom served on a silver platter.
I don’t quite know how to explain my feelings about this book. I liked it, but I didn’t love it, although I could, if I read it again. It’s confusing a lot of the time, but somehow it still manages to be captivating. Kit and Neku’s characters played a strong role in holding my attention, as did Neku’s storyline, because I’m a sucker for plots with dark personal secrets. At the end of the novel, I wasn’t especially impressed but I couldn’t stop thinking about it and when I re-read a few passages while writing this review I came to appreciate the book a bit more and raised my rating by a point. Chances are that if I re-read this novel my rating will go up another notch.
I’ve noticed that Grimwood often gets compared to Haruki Murakami. Despite having read only one novel by each author (I read and reviewed Murakami’s After Dark), I can understand the connection. There’s some superficial similarity in that both novels are set in Japan and the authors seem to have a thing for cats, but more importantly Grimwood’s novel has the same feel as Murakami’s – strange, disorientating, gently hypnotic, captivating without being fast-paced or especially dramatic. They’re quite different in terms of pace and content – Grimwood’s novel is violent at times, with a much wider scope than Murakami’s – which takes place over one night and includes a sleeping girl among its main characters – but they are both character-driven and leave you pleasantly haunted.
In End of the World Blues, it’s definitely the sci fi half of the plot that stays with me; the noir thriller part doesn’t lack in quality, but it’s far more mundane when your preference is for speculative fiction. Kit’s story is neatly wrapped up and has a relatively happy ending with a few unsettling echoes of past events. Such a resolution is comforting but doesn’t leave with much to think about once you’ve closed the book. The sci fi narrative on the other hand has loose ends and gaps. Although this often left me a bit confused, it’s part of the novel’s appeal. The more perplexing, incomplete nature of the future world keeps tugging at your mind, and the images and events stay with you even if you don’t quite understand them. Regardless of plot, I really love it when a book can do that to you. So, in conclusion: I must have more Grimwood.