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.

Up for Review: Japanese Novels

In the past two or three months, I’ve requested (and been lucky enough to receive) a couple of novels by Japanese authors, so I decided to do a group Up for Review post. All these novels are in different genres – the first is a literary novel told in short stories, with a touch of horror; the second is surreal sci fi; and the last one reinvents a Japanese creation myth. Each of these authors have several other books that have been translated into English, and I’m hoping that these three will open up a whole new world of literature for me.

Revenge by Yoko Igawa

 

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (Picador)

I’ve already read this one, and I think it’s fantastic. I’ll be posting my review soon, along with a giveaway, so keep an eye out!

NetGalley blurb:

Sinister forces draw together a cast of desperate characters in this eerie and absorbing novel from Yoko Ogawa.

 

An aspiring writer moves into a new apartment and discovers that her landlady has murdered her husband. Years later, the writer’s stepson reflects upon his stepmother and the strange stories she used to tell him. Meanwhile, a surgeon’s lover vows to kill him if he does not leave his wife. Before she can follow-through on her crime of passion, though, the surgeon will cross paths with another remarkable woman, a cabaret singer whose heart beats delicately outside of her body. But when the surgeon promises to repair her condition, he sparks the jealousy of another man who would like to preserve the heart in a custom tailored bag. Murderers and mourners, mothers and children, lovers and innocent bystanders—their fates converge in a darkly beautiful web that they are each powerless to escape.

Macabre, fiendishly clever, and with a touch of the supernatural, Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge creates a haunting tapestry of death—and the afterlife of the living.

 

Revenge was first published in 1998. This edition will be published on 29 January 2013 by Picador.

Links:
Goodreads
Buy a copy: The Book Depository I Amazon I Exclusive Books
On the publisher’s website
About the author: Wikipedia I Goodreads

 

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui (Vintage Books)
According to Wikipedia, Yasutaka Tsutsui is one of Japan’s most famous sf writers.

NetGalley blurb:

Widely acknowledged as Yasutaka Tsutsui’s masterpiece, Paprika unites his surreal, quirky imagination with a mind-bending narrative about a psychiatric institute that has developed the technology to invade people’s dreams.

 

When prototype model of a dream-invading device go missing at the Institute for Psychiatric Research, it transpires that someone is using them to drive people insane. Threatened both personally and professionally, brilliant psychotherapist Atsuko Chiba has to journey into the world of fantasy to fight her mysterious opponents. As she delves ever deeper into the imagination, the borderline between dream and reality becomes increasingly blurred, and nightmares begin to leak into the everyday realm. The scene is set for a final showdown between the dream detective and her enemies, with the subconscious as their battleground, and the future of the waking world at stake.

 

Paprika was first published in 1993. This edition will be published on 05 February 2013 by Picador.

Links:
Goodreads
Buy a copy: The Book Depository I Amazon I Exclusive Books
On the publisher’s website
About the author: Wikipedia I Goodreads I Website (Japanese) I Twitter (Japanese)

The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo KirinoThe Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino (Grove Press)

This is another book in Canongate Myth series

NetGalley blurb:

“A spectacle that includes multiple layers of opposing forces: life and death, love and hate . . . The author uniquely depicts an unruly mythological world.” —Shincho Magazine

In a place like no other, on a mystical island in the shape of tear drop, two sisters are born into a family of oracles. Beautiful Kamikuu is admired far and wide; Namima, small but headstrong, learns to live in her older sister’s shadow. On her sixth birthday, Kamikuu is chosen as the next Oracle, while Namima is forced to become the goddess of darkness, destined to spend eternity guiding the spirits of the deceased to the underworld. As the sisters serve opposite fates, so begins a journey that will take Namima from her first experience of love to scalding betrayal. Caught in an elaborate web of deceit, she travels from the land of the living to the Realm of the Dead and back again seeking vengeance and ultimate closure.

Natsuo Kirino turns her hand to an exquisitely dark tale, masterfully reinventing the Japanese creation myth of Izanami and Izanaki. A fantastical tour-de-force, The Goddess Chronicle is a tale as old as the earth about sibling rivalry, ferocious love, and bittersweet revenge.

 

The Goddess Chronicle was first published in 2008. This edition will be published on 6 August 2013 by Grove Press.

Links:
Goodreads
Buy a copy: The Book Depository I Amazon I Exclusive Books
On the publisher’s website
About the author: Wikipedia I Goodreads I Website

Review of John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

Title: John Saturnall’s Feast
Author: Lawrence Norfolk
Published: 04 September 2012 (first published 1 August 2012 by Bloomsbury)
Publisher: Grove Press
Genre: historical, romance
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

John Saturnall and his mother Susan live in the small village of Buckland in 17th century England. They have a mythical heritage, beginning with the story of the god Saturnus, who created the first garden where “every green thing grew. Every creature thrived. The first men and women lived in amity together. They knew no hunger or pain. Back then, Saturnus’s people kept the Feast.” From what I understand, the Feast is not just a meal, but an act of worship, a kind of knowledge about the natural world, and a generous attitude toward life. Keeping the Feast is about bringing forth life from the earth, nurturing it, and using its bounty to create culinary pleasures that are shared with others. The First Garden is a paradise of abundance and eating:

Date Palms grew in the First Garden. Bees filled the Combs in the Hives and crocuses offered their Saffron. Let the first Dish be great enough for All to dip their Cups. Let the Feast begin with Spiced Wine…

Saturnus created more gardens in the air and the rivers, before planting orchards. Each of these he populated with animals and plants and “[e]ach garden yielded a surpassing dish”. The First Garden was later named Eden by the priests who found it and condemned it for its ‘lust’ and ‘sloth’, declaring the Feast to be greed. They destroyed the garden and drove Saturnus’s people out, scattering them across the world.

This tale finds several parallels in the novel, the first of which happens when Susan is declared a witch, and the leader of a religious cult raises a mob to burn down her home. She and John flee to the forest, where she teaches him about the Feast and his duty to create one of his own. For a while John and his mother live off the land, but when winter comes Susan eventually starves to death in the cold.

John is taken to Buckland Manor, where he’s put to work in the kitchens and taught to cook. He possesses an uncanny sense of smell, which his mother said was “a demon in his throat […] A demon who knew every smell in Creation”. John’s sense of smell is not as keen as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s in Perfume, but it makes him an excellent cook. Cooking is, of course, part of his purpose in keeping the Feast, and is tied up with everything his mother taught him. Part of his duty is creating a book containing his recipes and his knowledge of the ingredients he uses. In between chapters of the novel are extracts from this book, written by an adult John, describing the complex recipes for the decadent dishes made in 17th century kitchens for nobles and royals.

These recipes are almost beyond belief. Everything is made from scratch of course, and every recipe sounded like it would take at a day to make, often requiring hours of mundane effort or close attention. Some dishes are ludicrously decadent, like an entire wild boar stuffed with as many other carcasses as can fit inside it – “a Sheep, a Kid, a Lamb, a Goose, a Capon” and so on, each ‘stuffing’ smaller than the last. How anyone ate that, I don’t know. The Spiced Wine on the other hand, sounds so rich and delicious as to be mythical; I can’t imagine anyone today going to the effort it takes to make it.

The quantity of food that goes in and out of the kitchen is staggering (and mouth-watering). Fresh produces arrives daily or comes straight from the land, lakes, and fields of the manor – fruits, vegetables, fowl, fish, meat, nuts, honey, milk and herbs. I hadn’t heard of many of the ingredients, but I still wanted to try almost every concoction.

Bloomsbury edition

The food, as you may have guessed, was my favourite thing about this beautifully written novel. ‘Sensual’ will probably be the word most often used to describe it, and I must have been sighing with longing as I read. I also had to admire Norfolk’s depiction of a 17th century kitchen and the household it serves. John Saturnall’s Feast is superb historical fiction, transporting you effortlessly into the life of this small but vibrant world. The kitchen is sort of a class of its own, with its own rules and hierarchies. For example, no stranger, no matter how noble, is allowed to enter the kitchens without the permission of an officer of the kitchen. The kitchen itself is huge, with rooms for things like curing meats, spices, and wines. For most of the staff it’s not just a workplace but a home, where they sleep on pallets on the floor.

John starts out in the scullery, where he washes dishes for hours on end, barely raising his head. Then, he learns the minutiae of cooking techniques. Later, he cooks for hours on end paying careful attention to every detail. And that’s just a normal day. When the Manor is host to guests, the work intensifies. When banquets are held, the servants struggle upstairs to the dining room, groaning under the weight of immense dishes or tureens of spiced wine. The sad thing is that the people who work the kitchens from morning to night are never seen to enjoy the delicious things they make. In between shifts, they sit down to a bit of bread (but not the good bread) and porridge. At best, the cooks sample their dishes before sending them upstairs. It’s all a matter of class, and no one questions it. From John’s perspective in the kitchen, it seems like the nobility and the Household do nothing but eat, while the kitchen staff do nothing but prepare food and wash dishes.

Other parts of the narrative give us a glimpse of what’s going on upstairs – a completely different world where the kitchen is seldom mentioned. It seems bizarre, at times, that people are NOT thinking about the hive of activity going on in the kitchen beneath them. But, as Norfolk mentioned in a video about the book the people upstairs would probably never come down to the kitchens. Most of the household parts are told from the perspective of Lady Lucretia, the daughter of the Lord of Buckland. Lucretia is a child when we first see her, and she has an odd habit of fasting, as her mother used to do. Whatever her reasons, it seems insane for her to eschew food when you know how much effort goes into cooking it for her.

John’s great culinary challenge comes about a decade after his arrival at Buckland. He’s called to cook for Lucretia after she goes on a hunger strike to protest her betrothal to a boy she can’t stand. A family dictate prevents her (or any woman) from inheriting the Buckland estate, and to avoid losing it she has to marry into a related family. John’s task is to cook something so delicious, that even Lucretia will not be able to resist it. If she ends her fast, she is essentially submitting to betrothal. Every day John cooks for hours and then waits patiently while she ignores him and his dishes. A tragedy, I thought. I would have given in the moment John described one of his many sublime creations, and found myself married to a buffoon for the sake of dessert. But Lucretia has more determination than that, and John’s daily ritual is the beginning of a romance that’s doomed from the start. Not only are the pair thwarted by the necessity of Lucretia’s marriage, but they’re soon separated when the Cromwellian civil war breaks out.

The novel becomes violent and tragic from here on, even though poor John only goes to war as a cook. The heavier themes come to the fore – duty, family legacy, and the contrast between religious fanaticism and the peaceful unity of the Feast. Throughout the novel, Norfolk elegantly entwines these themes with food, myth and history, and the whole is a beautiful, delectable, and touching. It can be a tad slow at times, but this is a book to savour, not a page-turner. Given what Norfolk has achieved here, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up one of his other historical novels, even though I don’t often dabble in this genre. There are some books that simply defy preference. If you love food, you should read this. If you love historical fiction about this period, you should read this. But mostly you should just read it because it’s a lovely piece of storytelling.

 

Buy John Saturnall’s Feast at The Book Depository

Up for Review: John Saturnall’s Feast

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk (Grove Press)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

A beautiful, rich, and sensuous historical novel, John Saturnall’s Feast tells the story of a young orphan who becomes a kitchen boy at a manor house and rises through the ranks to become the greatest cook of his generation. It is a story of food, star-crossed lovers, ancient myths, and one boy’s rise from outcast to hero.

It is the early-seventeenth century and John Saturnall is a young boy grow­ing up in the village of Buckland. He is bullied by other children, who claim that his mother is a witch. When many of the children in the village become sick, John’s mother is blamed, and she and her son are chased out of the village. They move to a forest, where it is said a witch called Buccla once grew a legend­ary garden. Giving what little she can forage to her son, John’s mother soon dies of starvation, but sees to it that John is taken in at the Buckland Manor house, where he begins working in the kitchen.

At the manor, John’s keen palate and natural cooking ability allow him to quickly rise from kitchen boy to cook. However, he soon gets on the wrong side of Lady Lucretia, the aristocratic daughter of the lord of the manor. In order to inherit the estate, Lucretia must wed, but her fiancé is an arrogant buffoon whose face Lucretia thinks resembles a water parsnip. When Lucretia takes a vow of fasting until her father calls off her engagement, it falls on John to try to cook her delicious food that might tempt her to break her fast. As John serves meals to Lucretia, an illicit attraction grows between the pair, but fate is conspiring against them. Lucretia’s betrothal cannot be undone, and soon the household is thrown into chaos as Cromwell’s Roundheads go to war with the loyalist Cavaliers and the English Civil War begins.

Reminiscent of Wolf Hall, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and works by David Mitchell and Peter Carey, John Saturnall’s Feast is a brilliant work by a writer at the top of his powers, and a delight for all the senses.

 

John Saturnall’s Feast is due to be published tomorrow (4 September 2012) by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic. It was published in the UK by Bloomsbury on 13 September 2012, and in my opinion the UK edition has a much prettier cover.

For those who’d like to know more, I’ve collected some links for you:

Read an extract at Granta Magazine
Website for the novel
Bloomsbury book trailer (YouTube)
Lawrence Norfolk introduces John Saturnall’s Feast (YouTube), and discusses his inspiration for the novel. The video is shot in one of the few surviving 17th century kitchens – the exact kind of kitchen where the main character would have worked. Norfolk speaks a bit about working in the kitchen and what they would have cooked there; a nice way of setting the stage for his novel.
Author’s website
Buy John Saturnall’s Feast at The Book Depository
Norfolk is the author of three other historical novels. Check them out on Goodreads.