The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino

The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo KirinoTitle: The Goddess Chronicle
Author: Natsuo Kirino
Translated: from Japanese by Rebecca Copeland
Series: Canongate Myths #13
Published: First published 9 March 2008; this edition published 6 August 2013
Publisher: Grove Press (Canongate US)
Genre: mythology, fantasy, literary
Rating: 8/10

Namima grows up on a tiny island in the shape of a teardrop, part of the archipelago that will eventually become Japan. Like a teardrop, the island embodies beauty, sadness and great tragedy. Although it looks like paradise, food and timber are scarce so the people live in poverty. The island also has many cruel customs and these are what drive Namima’s story. She and her sister Kamikuu were born into a family of priestesses, and when Kamikuu is six years old, she is kept in isolation to be trained as the island’s next Oracle (the high priestess). Namima is devastated, not only because she’s been parted from her beloved sister, but because she is considered “impure” and Kamikuu will be “defiled” if she speaks to her.

In the years that follow, Namima’s duty is to deliver Kamikuu’s food to the Oracle’s hut. IIts the only remaining connection she has with her sister, but it also disgusts her. Kamikuu is always given a delicious meal the likes of which the other islanders will probably never see in their lives. Kamikuu never finishes the food, but Namima must throw the leftovers into the ocean so that no one else may touch it. Every single day she throws away food while she and the other islanders go hungry. It’s the island’s law.

But Namima breaks the law in an act of compassion leads to further transgressions and a love affair that becomes Namima’s downfall. When Kamikuu becomes the new Oracle, the priestess of light, Namima is told that she is now the priestess of death and darkness. They are opposites in balance – yin and yang. As priestess of the darkness, Namima must watch over the dead, never to return to the village, never to see her family except perhaps briefly, at funerals. She is supposed to stay a lifelong virgin too, but Namima broke that law before even knowing that she was bound by it.

“It is your fate and you are powerless to change it” she is told, before being barricaded in the burial grounds where she expected to spend the rest of her life alone. Angry, terrified and desperate, she defies the island’s law once again, only to die a tragic death. Because of the circumstances of her death, however, she finds herself in Yomi, the Realm of the Dead, where the goddess Izanami makes Namima her priestess. She learns the story of Izanami and Izanaki – the Japanese creation myth based on the concepts of yin and yang, but also a tragic love story that ended with Izanaki trapping Izanami in the Realm of the Dead for all eternity.

At the opening of the novel Namima tells us that:

Izanami is the woman among women; she is all women. It would not be an overstatement to say that the fate she suffered is the fate that all the women of this land must bear.

Having read Izanami’s story now that seems a bitter thing to say – surely not all women, even in traditional societies, are fated to suffer so much because they are women? But as Namima warns, everything she says represents her goddess:

This tale may be spun from my words but I speak for the goddess, the one who governs the Realm of the Dead. My words may be dyed red with anger; they may tremble in yearning after the living; but they are all, each and every one, spoken to express the sentiments of the goddess.

She can do this because she’s suffered tragedy and injustice in ways that parallel Izanami’s story. But her experiences and her allegiance also means that she’s biased, so the story she tells probably takes a biased perspective. Izanami claims that she suffers the way she does specifically because she a female god, and almost all the women in the novel share some parallel with her story – they suffer because of their social duties as women, they suffer because of the men they love, they suffer in childbirth.

Izanami’s role as a goddess was to produce life with Izanaki, yet their first child died and Izanami later ‘died’ in childbirth (gods are immortal so she lived on in the Realm of the Dead). Similarly, the traditional role of women is to produce children – a risky business in such an ancient society. As the Oracle, Kamikuu also has the role of a life-giver – she must have as many children as possible, and produce the next generation of priestesses. Another woman on the island essentially ‘curses’ her family when she fails to have a female child as is her duty. Although her family is shunned and receives no support from the community, she gets pregnant again and again, losing most of the babies, desperately hoping for the girl that will save her.

In the archipelago, men go out to on ships and boats to fish and trade, while women stay on their islands. Each role has its perils, but being trapped in one place is the fate of women. Izanami was trapped in the Realm of the Dead when Izanaki rolled a boulder across the entrance, Kamikuu spent her childhood in isolation while she was trained, and Namima was supposed to live her life alone in the burials grounds.

Men and women are an expression of yin and yang, which is, one the one hand, a concept of harmonious balance, but also the concept that dictates the unpleasant fates the characters suffer. Kamikuu is ‘pure’, Namima is impure. Kamikuu is a life-giver, Namima must watch over the dead. Izanami and Izanaki are the male and female opposites whose union creates the human world, but Izanami’s role changes when she becomes the goddess of death, alone and bitter while Izanaki continues to live in the world, travelling and finding new lovers.

There are a few other critical parallels between the goddess and the women of the novel, but I don’t want to discuss them for fear of revealing spoilers. However, I will add that I don’t think they overwhelm the story. I expected the feminist overtones of this novel to be the primary attraction for me, as is usually the case with books like this, but while they are interesting (if tragic), I mostly enjoyed this book as pure story. Like myth, The Goddess Chronicle has the sheer power of a good narrative, not only in Namima’s story, but also in Izanami’s and, towards the end, in Izanaki’s. Admittedly, it’s quite grim, full of tragedy, cruelty and characters who are either grim and bitter or who have just accepted their sad fates. But it’s avoids being depressing. It is simply a good read, albeit with a much more solemn feel than most books with such a thriving plot.

This comes largely from the narrative style, which lies somewhere at the intersection of raw myth and the novelisation of myth. While the author has fleshed out details that you don’t normally find in myth – characterisation, dialogue, etc. – the story still has the sparse yet grand feel of myth and it’s better to read it as such, rather than as a typical novel. Supernatural things happen without proper explanations, and there are oddities and plot holes. This is the kind of story that doesn’t need to be so rigorous; if you can relax and let it carry you along, you’ll be fine. And of course if you love myth, you shouldn’t hesitate to read it at all.

Review of Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

Title: Ragnarok
Author: A.S. Byatt
Series: Canongate Myths
Published: First published 6 September 2011 by Canongate. This edition published 1 February
Publisher: Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic
Genre: mythology
My Rating: 9/10

Ragnarok is not quite the story that the blurb of my edition implies – a modern retelling of a Norse myth featuring a child living in the English countryside during World War Two. Rather, it is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young child reading and re-reading Asgard and the Gods, endlessly fascinated by its stories. The child – known only as “the thin child” – is not the focus of this book, but rather a means for Byatt to write for her “childhood self, and the way I had found the myths and thought about the world when I first read Asgard and the Gods”. In this manner, Byatt not only relates a set of rich, mysterious and beautiful mythical stories, but leads the reader through the musings about reading, storytelling, mythology and religion that occupy her philosophical young protagonist.

The thin child is a classic book lover and fantasy fan:

She devoured stories with rapacious greed, ranks of black marks on white, sorting themselves into mountains, and trees, stars, moons and suns, dragons, dwarfs, and forests containing wolves, foxes and the dark.

She frequently reads late at night, under the covers with a torch, or in the sliver of light from her bedroom doorway. When we dive into the pages of Asgard and the Gods with her, we aren’t given the text of the book itself, but a rewritten version that recreates for us the same sense of awe that the thin child experiences. The feel of Ragnarok is partly a product of the Norse myths themselves, but mostly an effect of Byatt’s writing – it’s lush and vivid, bringing to life a bizarre world in which humans play no real part (they’re created after dwarves and elves and then promptly ignored). She also chooses to hold true to the style in which the myths were told. Most of the other authors who wrote for the Canongate Myths series chose “to assimilate the myths into the form of novels, or modern stories, retell the tales as though the people had personalities and psychologies”. Byatt however, writes something more akin to what she calls “raw myth”:

Gods, demons and other actors in myths do not have personalities or characters in the way people in novels do. They do not have psychology […]. They have attributes – Hera and Frigg are essentially jealous, Thor is violent, Mars is warlike, Baldur is beautiful and gentle, Diana of Ephesus is fertile and virginal.

At the beginning we’re told of Yggdrasil, the World Ash and Rándrasil, the Sea-Tree. The thin child ponders the question of how something came from nothing, leading us to the Norse creation myth, wherein a giant is born from chaos and is later slain by the first gods, who dismember his body and use it to create the heavens and the earth. Later we learn about Asgard, home of the gods, and encounter the divinities themselves. There’s Odin, the sinister, damaged god who lost an eye drinking magical knowledge from a fountain. The thin child’s favourite character is Loki, “a being who was neither this nor that”, a trickster who alone among the gods possessed the ability to change his shape and even his sex. She admires his humour and wit, and finds his changeable shapes and cleverness attractive.

Byatt relates the stories that eventually lead up to Ragnarök, which “means the darkening of the Regin, i.e. of the gods, hence the Twilight of the Gods; some however explain the word Rök to mean Judgement, i.e. of the gods’”. The thin child likes Ragnarök because it a real, bloody ending not a cyclical one, and unlike the Christian stories, it’s not humans who are judged but the gods themselves. They are flawed and stupid in a disturbingly familiar human way – they “know Ragnarök is coming but are incapable of imagining any way to fend it off, or change the story. They know how to die gallantly but not how to make a better world”.

In reading Asgard and the Gods, the thin child contemplates the tropes of storytelling – the way prohibitions are there to be broken (like one God gave to Adam and Eve), the recurrence of the number three, the way the youngest of three children is always the most important, and how in every story something must go wrong and not even the gods are powerful enough to stop it. She notes how myth differs from the fairytales, and how “[t]hey cannot be explained and do not explain” but haunt her nevertheless “coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive”.

The thin child’s fascination with myth means that it becomes intertwined with the way she thinks about her own life. Her father – who’s been away at war for years – is portrayed as a mythical figure, fighting battles in the air in places that, for the thin child, exist only in books. She remembers him as having “red-gold hair and clear blue eyes, like a god”. At church, she can’t help but compare the Norse myths to the Christian stories, and comes to the realisation that Christianity too, is a set of man-made myths, only far less interesting than the Norse ones. Consequently, she can’t believe in either, even if she can take pleasure in their stories. A particularly interesting illustration in Asgard and the Gods, when seen in relation to the landscape of her home, gives her an idea of how myths are created:

The picture gave the child an intense, uncanny pleasure. She knew, but could not have said, that it was the precise degree of formlessness in the nevertheless scrupulously depicted rocks that was so satisfactory. The reading eye must do the work to make them live, and so it did, again and again, never the same life twice, as the artist had intended. She had noticed that a bush, or a log, seen from a distance on her meadow-walk, could briefly be a crouching, snarling dog, or a trailing branch could be a snake, complete with shining eyes and flickering forked tongue. This way of looking was where the gods and giants came from.

In a shadow of the way Byatt loved Asgard and the Gods, her Ragnarok also gave me “an intense, uncanny pleasure”. She very beautifully achieves her aim of recreating a sense of the profound reading experience from her childhood. Ragnarok is an exquisite book that I feel I could re-read multiple times, savouring the details and letting myself be as enchanted as Byatt was. The eARC I received for this review will not be sufficient – this is a book I need to have in hardcover to grace my shelf for years.

Buy a copy of Ragnarok at The Book Depository