Review of The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Title: The Devotion of Suspect X
Author: Keigo Higashino
Translator: Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander
Published: First published in Japanese in 2005; this translation published in 2011
Publisher:
 Little, Brown
Genre: crime, mytery
Source: review copy from Penguin SA
Rating: 7/10

Yasuko is a single mother living a quiet life, working in a Tokyo bento shop, when her ex-husband Togashi walks back into her life. She’d divorced him after he became an abusive drunk who took her money for gambling. Afterwards, he’d repeatedly harassed Yasuko and her daughter Misato, until Yasuko changed jobs, homes and Misato’s school in an effort to get away from him. But now he’s found them again. In their small apartment, he brags that they will never be rid of him, prompting a terrified Misato to attack him. In the struggle that follows, Yasuko defends her daughter by strangling Togashi while Misato holds him down.

Mother and daughter are both prepared to turn themselves in when their enigmatic neighbour, Ishigami, calls and offers to help them dispose of the body. Yasuko is shocked that he figured out what happened and wants to help, but she knows that Ishigami – a reclusive mathematical genius – has always had a thing for her. Although he’s too shy to exchange more than a few words with her and sometimes can’t even make eye contact, he always buys his lunch from the bento shop where she works just so that he can see her.

Ishigami immediately begins instructing Yasuko and Misato on dealing with the incriminating evidence and makes plans for disposing of Togashi’s body. Soon after, the police find a body with its face smashed in and fingerprints burned off. By the time they identify it as Togashi and come knocking on Yasuko’s door, the mother and daughter have credible alibis and there is no solid evidence linking them to Togashi’s death. But the police have no one else to suspect, and Detective Kusanagi of the Edogawa police keeps poking at the problems in Yasuko’s story and questioning the puzzling circumstances of the murder. He turns to his friend Yukawa, another genius who works in the physics department at a local university and sometimes helps the police with their cases.

Yukawa, Kusanagi and Ishigami actually all attended university at the same time, and when Yukawa hears that Ishigami is the neighbour of the murder suspect, he asks Kusanagi for the address. Yukawa simply wants to get in touch with an old friend and classmate whose brilliance he deeply admired, but in doing so he starts to suspect Ishigami’s involvement in the case. The physicist is the only one with a mind to match the mathematician’s, and with Kusanagi’s help he tries to solve the problem that Ishigami has created to protect the woman he is so devoted to.

This is an unusual and interesting angle for a mystery novel. For the reader, there is no mystery surrounding Togashi’s murder – we learn all there is to know about the why, who and how in the first two chapters. Instead, it’s Ishigami’s brilliant cover-up that drives the story, as Yukawa and Kusanagi battle to find the truth. We see only fragments of Ishigami’s plan, which at first seems simplistic and sloppy, but is soon revealed to be complex and deceptive. Ishigami has never done something like this before, but he is certain that “Logical thinking will get us through this” and applies mathematical ideas to the problem as if it were an equation or philosophical dilemma.

For the sake of suspense, most of his methods are hidden from the reader until the very end. It feels a tad artificial, since the story is told from multiple perspectives (Yasuko, Ishigami, Yukawa and Kusanagi) and you are very aware of the fact that the author is being selective about what his characters say and think, or how much of their conversations are put on the page. But I thought the story worked very well nevertheless. Even if you aren’t privy to Ishigami’s plans, you get to see Yukawa and Kusanagi tackling the problem. The only irritating part is when Yukawa starts to figure out what happened, but only makes vague and provocative statements about it because he’s unwilling to incriminate his friend and doesn’t want such a brilliant mind to be wasted in prison.

There are some other interesting character dynamics at play. Yasuko starts dating an old friend, but both she and Misato are aware of how this could jeopardise their situation – Ishigami is obviously obsessed with her, so what might he do if he feels betrayed? Should Yasuko put her life on hold for someone so socially inept that he can’t even have a normal conversation with her? And how dangerous is Ishigami, a man who didn’t think twice about covering up a murder or mutilating a body to do it? The crime has been committed, but the sense of menace remains, especially when Yukawa describes Ishigami as a man who would do anything, no matter how horrific, if it was the most logical solution to a problem.

It’s quietly compelling story, somehow managing to be a page-turner with a minimum of the drama that that term generally implies. I appreciated its calm, straightforward manner and the way the plot differed from the norm. The Japanese police in the novel seem so very different from the brash cops often seen in fiction, or the overworked, under-resourced and inefficient ones you hear about in the news. The Edogawa police have all the resources they need, and Kusanagi is thoughtful and observant. He warns his partner about the danger of assumptions, when the younger officer assumes that a nice single-mother like Yasuko couldn’t possibly be guilty of a violent crime. Similarly, Yukawa warns Kusanagi about the assumptions the police are making, knowing that Ishigami could use that against them.

I like the strategic, rational thinking here, especially when it comes to the two geniuses. I only wish that the whole novel was as rigorous, because its logic fails somewhat in relation to Misato’s character. While there were only two or three technical details that bothered me in the novel, the worst one was about Misato – after she attacks Togashi, he retaliates and hits her repeatedly in the face, but at no point does she show any bruises.

Then, I felt that her character was badly neglected, which bugged me throughout the book and becomes problematic at the end. We’re always left to make assumptions about her motives and feelings, while other characters’ are described in more detail. It’s stated that Togashi had physically abused Yasuko, but whether or not Misato was also abused is not clear, although it’s very likely. Then there’s a subtle suggestion that he may have abused her sexually, which would certainly account for her fear, and her impulse to attack Togashi and help her mother kill him. Misato’s actions are what set the entire story in motion, but even in that crucial moment the focus is on Yasuko, and Misato feels secondary. For the rest of the novel, she is little more than a sullen teenager, spitting out a line here and there. She clearly feels guilty about what she did, not because Togashi was killed but because of the trouble and risk created for Yasuko and Ishigami. And yet Misato’s feelings are barely touched upon, even when we see the story from Yasuko’s POV as a concerned parent. If she talks to Misato about the situation, we don’t see it on the page.

On a related note, the police largely ignore the reasons behind the murder. The reader, of course, knows that Togashi threatened Yasuko and Misato, and several characters express relief at his death, knowing how badly he’d treated his ex-wife and step-daughter. The police, however, are more concerned with the who and how of the murder, not the why. With no one to suspect except Yasuko, they try to figure out how she could have done it, but aren’t too concerned with the glaring possibility that she killed Togashi in a kind of self-defence. Besides the fact that the police would need a motive for the case, ignoring the issue seems unkind, portraying Yasuko as a killer rather than a vulnerable person in a difficult situation.

Flaws aside though, The Devotion of Suspect X is an excellent crime thriller and an intelligent page-turner. It offers a refreshing departure from the norm in English-language fiction, not only because of the plot but because of the Tokyo setting, and the Japanese culture. The translation can be a little clunky at times, but some of that I would chalk up to a difference in style that I’ve noticed in other translations from Japanese, in both popular fiction and anime. I’d happily pick up another of Keigo Higashino’s novels, and I’d recommend that you do too.

Review of Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Title: Paprika
Author:
 Yasutaka Tsutsui
Published: First published in 1993; this translation published on 5 February 2013
Publisher:
 Vintage Books
Genre: science fiction, fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 4/10

Please note: this review contains some spoilers. I haven’t revealed any details about the ending, but I have discussed a major scene from the middle of the novel.

Atsuko Chiba is gifted and stunningly beautiful psychoanalytic therapist. She and her partner Kosaku Tokita have invented and developed technology that allows therapists to view and engage with the dreams of their patients, treating them at a subconscious level. For this, Atsuko and Tokita have been nominated for a Nobel Prize. In the early days of the technology however, Atsuko worked with it illegally, secretly using the devices to treat wealthy, powerful men who couldn’t afford to have their mental problems made public. To protect herself, she created an alter ego named Paprika, disguised to look like a younger, woman. Now, the Administrator of the Institute for Psychiatric Research asks Atsuko to become Paprika the dream detective once again, in order to help a friend who has been suffering from panic attacks.

Paprika’s reappearance coincides with a variety of troubles at the Institute. Journalists have been chasing rumours about Atsuko’s love life, her identity as Paprika and the illegal activities she may have engaged in. One of the psychotherapists falls into a catatonic state after viewing the dreams of a schizophrenic patient, leading to the rumour that the dream devices make schizophrenia contagious. But in fact the therapist was deliberately driven insane in an act of sabotage by two other employees – Inui and his handsome young protégé Osanai – who believe that the dream devices are immoral and that Atsuko and Tokita should not be allowed to win the Nobel Prize.

The situation becomes dire when Tokita creates tiny but powerful new versions of the devices. These upgrades – called DC Minis – are soon stolen by Inui and Osanai who use them for sexual purposes. Because Atsuko/Paprika lives in the same building and is treating new patients late at night, her devices start to pick up on their dreams. Soon, things spiral out of control, with dreams bleeding into each other and eventually invading reality. With the help of the men in her life, Atsuko/Paprika has to battle her enemies in both the real world and the dream one, as they persist in their diabolical attempts to put an end to her research, her position at the Institute, and her chance at winning the Nobel Prize.

 

In the blurb, Paprika is lauded as Yasutaka Tsutsui’s “masterpiece”. Personally, that leaves me with no reason to seek out the rest of his work, but at least there’s a lot to discuss about this novel. The story sets up a conflict between tradition and scientific progress. The two villains, Inui and Osanai, are strict traditionalists. They have a traditional master/student relationship, with the middle-aged Inui passing on his ideas to Osanai and giving him orders for the plan to sabotage Atsuko. They believe that technology should not be used in psychotherapy:

Like his mentor Seijiro Inui, Osanai fervently believed that technology had no place in the field of psychoanalysis. Many mental illnesses in the modern era had arisen from the rampant excesses of science and technology in the first place; the very idea of using science and technology to treat them was fundamentally wrong. It violated the principles of nature.

 

he felt that Atsuko’s practice of indiscriminately accessing patients’ dreams, violating their mental space for the sake of her treatment, ran counter to all accepted morality; it far exceeded the tolerable limits of psychotherapy. If such actions were to win her the Nobel Prize, it would mean that psychiatry for the sake of humanity had been reduced to science for the sake of technology. Patients would then start to be treated as objects. The warm, human psychoanalysis that Osanai and the others had expended so much effort to learn would become discarded as old-fashioned medicine, ungrounded in theory and no better than alchemy or witchcraft. Until PT devices could be properly evaluated and used correctly, Tokita and Chiba had to be prevented from winning the Nobel Prize, whatever it took. This was Osanai’s firm conviction.

Some of this might sounds reasonable, but Osanai and Inui are most certainly not. They complain bitterly that Atsuko and Tokita are being irresponsible and inhuman in their use of the dream devices, but then steal the DC Minis and use them without concern for the consequences. Their hypocrisy becomes particularly ludicrous when they use the devices to drive people insane as part of an attempt to show how dangerous the technology is, all the while mouthing off self-righteously about how Atsuko and Tokita need to be stopped! They call the new DC Minis “the Devil’s Seed” and their vendetta has many religious overtones, with Inui actually framing the whole thing as a holy war in which he is a saviour fighting on the side of good.

But Inui’s objection is not only a moral one – several years before he lost the Nobel Prize to another scholar, and now he’s clearly very jealous of Atsuko and Tokita, particularly because he sees them as inferiors: Tokita is an obese, child-like man, and Atsuko is a woman. Which brings me to the gender issues. In keeping with their traditionalist mindsets, both Osanai and Inui hold very misogynistic views about women, undermining their intellectual abilities and objectifying their bodies:

Osanai found himself better equipped to tolerate the role of Atsuko Chiba, compared to that of Tokita. After all, she was a just woman. As a woman, she had no ideology. So it stood to reason that the only thought in her mind was to faithfully, cheerfully pursue the utility value and application of the PT devices developed by Tokita. That was what all female scientists were like anyway; nothing more could be expected of them. This was not a question of looking down on women, but rather one of recognizing their natural disposition.

 

He always felt immensely aroused after seeing Atsuko Chiba, particularly when he’d clapped eyes on her alluring figure from close quarters. It usually ended in an act of self-abuse, but today, as luck would have it, he was expecting a visit from Senior Nurse Sayama. He could use her body to relieve his physical arousal.

 

Inui had always treated women as commodities, outlets for carnal desires; he recognized no spirituality in them whatsoever.

 

In one moment of rage, Osanai goes so far as to claim that Atsuko isn’t a real woman because she fails to show the sense of submission he expects from her sex and isn’t interested in him despite his incredibly good looks:

Call yourself a woman?! You may be beautiful, but you’re no woman. The only men you can love are freaks and mental patients who let you do what you like! That’s not what I call a woman!”

It’s not just the villains who are misogynists though. Atsuko finds a similar attitude among the press, implying that it’s a great social ill as well:

to Atsuko, attending a press conference simply meant being exposed to public view in a way that was barely welcome. In her view, the journalists weren’t interested in noting some form of higher intelligence in the young, beautiful woman called Atsuko Chiba. They hated the idea that she was their intellectual superior, and merely seemed bent on finding something in her that would reinforce their preconceived image of Japanese femininity.

 

they would also happily grasp any chance of belittling Atsuko Chiba, whose exasperating combination of beauty and genius made her a suitable target for their wrath.

By defying the press, Osanai and Inui, it seems like Atsuko – and the book as a whole – would function as a critique of this misogyny and the “empire mentality” to which it is attributed. However, the book doesn’t take a progressive stance on gender or sexuality. Inui and Osanai are in a committed, loving relationship, but the book demonises their homosexuality, using it to portray the two men as vile and perverse. Atsuko/Paprika is the only major female character in a cast that has room for many more, and when she needs help it’s inevitably men – older men with wealth and power – who come to her rescue. She has their allegiance because she’s treated them, and it seems like Paprika only treats older, rich men who she inevitably finds herself attracted to. At one point, she completely undermines the intelligence for which she is so frequently praised, claiming she is successful because of her beauty rather than her brains:

“Actually, I’m not really that great a therapist. I just use my looks to help the treatment along. Maybe that’s why I’m so successful. It shouldn’t be allowed, should it.”

She’s being a bit self-deprecating, perhaps – there are long scenes describing her dream-world treatments, and she obviously uses more than her beauty. Nevertheless the men in the book, both good and bad, are always going on about how beautiful she is and how they’ve fallen in love with her as a result. It’s her body they value, rather than her mind and the novel does nothing to critique this.

Then there’s an extremely weird attempted-rape scene that I’ve struggled to unpack. Frustrated by their inability to thwart Atsuko, Inui tells Osanai that he “must rape her” because “Inui’s view, a product of empire mentality, was that a man only need rape a woman to put her under his dominion”. Osanai claims to be in love with Atsuko, and is thrilled by this order because it gives him “a perverse moral justification for acts he himself sought to commit”. He believes that raping Atsuko will “enslave her to him”. It’s appalling, but these are the villains, so at least we know the novel doesn’t endorse this view. But the problems here go deeper.

When Osanai goes to Atsuko’s apartment to rape her, she fights back, so he hits her repeatedly in the face. Realising that Osanai might “half kill her” to get what he wants, she decides to “let him rape her” to avoid getting hurt. “If she were a man” she says “she would have fought him until her dying breath. But she was a woman. She had no intention of aping a man’s senseless insistence on fighting to the death”.

Osanai responds to Atsuko’s capitulation with “relief and tearful joy” (I can imagine this only in kooky anime terms). However, Atsuko insists that he rape her “properly”, by which she means that he has to “satisfy” her. We’re told that it’s been years since Atsuko had sex with a man (dream-world sex doesn’t count) and Osanai actually presents a rather convenient opportunity to satisfy all the pent-up desire that’s been causing “an unnatural flow in her libido”. But because Osanai finally has what he wants, and because Atsuko is so devastatingly beautiful, he is too overwhelmed to perform, claiming that Atsuko’s “aura is too strong”. The two trade insults about each other’s lack of masculinity or femininity, and eventually Osanai leaves. Immediately after, Atsuko takes a relaxing bath and thinks very calmly and analytically about what just happened. She isn’t upset; instead, she starts thinking about sex with another man. Technically her face should be covered in terrible bruises and her mouth swollen from Osanai’s beating, but this seems to have been forgotten.

This is one of the most fucked up scenes I’ve come across in fiction and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. On the one hand, I can see how it could be read as subversive, and given some of the ideas about gender in the novel, that may have been the author’s intention. Osanai goes in assuming that his masculinity can be used as a weapon against a woman, but instead he’s crushed by her femininity – her decision to stop fighting, and her overwhelming beauty. Rape is very much about power, and Osanai is revealed to be utterly pathetic. Atsuko isn’t even shaken let alone enslaved or defeated. She emerges victorious, analyses the situation, and dismisses it.

And yet, everything about this feels so wrong. Atsuko thwarts Osanai firstly by becoming passive. She stops fighting, undresses, and positions herself on the couch. This, combined with her beauty, is what undoes Osanai. Atsuko didn’t plan his defeat; if anything she’s just lucky to accidentally exploit his weaknesses. In the meantime, we see a female character plagued with some of the biggest problems in the depiction of women in the media – the association of passivity with femininity and women being reduced to and valued for their beauty and little else. This might be what saves Atsuko, but it reinforces misogynistic stereotypes. There are also the sickening ideas that rape is a display of masculinity and that a woman could enjoy it or want it, with the whole thing finally dismissed as relatively unimportant.

I can also critique this scene without a feminist perspective – it’s just so utterly ridiculous and implausible in terms of character. A man comes to a woman’s apartment, they argue, he hits her repeatedly in the face, tears her clothing off, and tries to force himself on her. She’s in so much pain that she agrees to stop struggling, but finds herself turned on a few moments later. I’m not going to entertain the possibility of a rape fantasy here – Atsuko doesn’t express any sexual preferences except for an attraction to wealthy, powerful older men, and Osanai is none of those things. He’s extremely handsome, but Atsuko stated before that she dislikes him. We’re expected to believe that, because she hasn’t had sex with men for a long time, she’s so horny that even a would-be rapist, who is also her enemy and a man she doesn’t like, presents an opportunity for enjoyment. It’s as if lust is just something that fills her up and must be poured out.

And the attack hardly seems to bother her. I can’t imagine anyone – male or female – being nonchalant about getting beat up and violated in their own home.  I can see this as subversive or triumphant only in the most theoretical terms. Otherwise, it just looks like bad writing. Overall, this scene is just too weird and problematic for me, and I don’t like the way it was handled.

I could actually say that about many aspects of the novel though. Reading Paprika frequently reminded me of watching anime, which, I must admit, I don’t get and seldom enjoy. Like anime, the novel is full of exaggerated or incongruous emotions, the two villains are absurdly petty, vindictive and hypocritical (not to mention stupid), there are catastrophic events that get swept under the rug, and of course there are all those disturbing ideas about gender and sexuality. I spoke to my boyfriend about this aspect of the novel, since he is a big anime fan and has watched a lot more than I have. According to him, these things – the emotions, the villains, the objectification of women – are all pretty standard features of anime. I’m happy to shrug off some of my issues with the novel as part of a cultural tradition that I simply don’t appreciate. After all, I enjoy some pretty ludicrous action and horror movies; I’m just accustomed to that brand of absurdity. But that doesn’t make me think any better of this novel, and anyway I’m far less forgiving of its issues with gender and sexuality.

February 2013 Round-up

February was another lazy month in terms of reviewing, but a pretty good reading month, with a perfect balance between review books and leisure reads.

February Review

I had a bit of trouble deciding exactly what I thought of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan. The worldbuilding is well done, if a tad insistent and the story is fine, but I had some issues with Brennan’s creative decisions, particularly her decision to make her fantasy world exactly like ours during the Victorian period, but with dragons added. With the Victorian setting comes all the related sexism, classism, and insistence on propriety, all of which I found irritating to various degrees. I wished the narrator, Isabella, could just have been allowed to get on with the challenges of studying dragons without having to tell us, constantly, how unladylike her aspirations are.

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui is a novel about technology used for viewing and engaging with people’s dreams, and a ‘dream detective’ who goes into people’s dreams to sort out their mental troubles. Things go awry with the latest version of the dream technology is stolen and misused, causing dreams to invade reality. The novel reminded me a lot of anime, with the way it so easily conflates fantasy and reality, its absurd villains, exaggerated emotions, and ideas about gender. Some of this works, but most of it is troubling, particularly the gender issues.

The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian is a more thoughtful dystopian novel than most, featuring a post-apocalyptic society based on utilitarian philosophy and the idea that humanity has at least been unable to outgrow its need for natural impulses. The conflict in the novel comes from this society’s mercy-killing of the primitive tribes that live in the lush forests outside the settlement’s reinforced glass walls, and the ethical questions related to those killings and the vastly different lifestyles of the two groups of humans. It wasn’t quite as great as I’d hoped, but it’s undoubtedly one of the best books that I’ve read in the genre. I was really pleased by its absence of easy answers and its ability to surprise me. Review to follow soon.

I hadn’t planned to read The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke this month, but it came in very handy when I needed a quick read to finish a reading challenge, and writing the review was a rare pleasure in that it only took about 2-3 hours. The novel offers the standard commercial YA content: a feisty kick-ass heroine, a broody mysterious guy, a fantasy world that’s not too fantastical, and a bit of adventure. Nothing special, but luckily nothing infuriating either. That might be because I didn’t care enough about the characters or the story to be upset by the fact that the plot barely moves at all, and there’s an utterly pointless dearth of useful information about the curse, the world, and our mysterious brooding assassin. I won’t be reading the sequel.

February Leisure

It’s only when I did the pictures for this post that I realised I’d managed four leisure reads this month. The first was Carrie by Stephen King. I read this years ago, and I liked it even more this time around. I can’t wait to see the new movie starring Chloë Grace Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as Margaret White.

Farewell Waltz by Milan Kundera was another short book I read for a reading challenge, although this one took me much longer to finish than The Assassin’s Curse. It relates a bizarre story that begins when a young nurse calls a famous, married trumpeter to tell him that she’s pregnant with his child, and quickly expands to include a large cast of related characters. I like Kundera’s philosophical and political musings more than anything else, and it wasn’t a bad read.

I’ve been downloading Clarkesworld Magazine podcasts lately, and Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente is my favourite so far. I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads. It’s a story about machine intelligence that brings together sci fi, fantasy and folklore in a beautiful story that’s particularly magical when read by Kate Baker. I’ve listened to it twice in its entirety already (the podcast is broken up into 3 parts) and I will no doubt listen to it many more times. I was devastated to find that I currently can’t buy the limited edition hardcover of this novella.

I’ve had a copy of UFO In Her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo for a few years. It’s set in a village in rural China, where a peasant sees a UFO (or thinks she does) and saves a foreigner who has been bitten by a snake. Investigators are sent to find out what happened, and the chief uses the incident as a means of getting money to modernise her village. The story is told entirely in interview transcripts and other documents, with the pages designed to look like they’ve been photocopied and filed. It’s partly hopeful, but mostly quite sad and critical of the crass attempts at progress that benefit very few while ruining the lives of most of the villagers. a very quick read, and nothing like I’d expected.

I had hoped I could list Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson among my leisure reads for this month, but alas, I am still struggling to finish it… Here’s hoping I’ll complete it by the end of March!

Review and Giveaway of Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge by Yoko IgawaTitle: Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
Author: Yoko Ogawa
Published: 
29 January 2013
Pubisher: Picador
Genre: 
literary fiction, short stories
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

I googled a bit of information on Yoko Ogawa when I started writing this review, and I was impressed but not too surprised to learn that she has won every major Japanese literary award and has published over twenty works of fiction and non-fiction. Revenge undoubtedly showcases the skills of a talented, experienced author. When I read “Afternoon at the Bakery”, the first of the “Eleven Dark Tales” in this collection, I was stunned. It’s a devastating kind of story, like many of the stories here – very calm and quiet, with sudden stabs of shock and pain, like a surgical knife slid quickly but gently into the heart of an unsuspecting victim. A simple narrative draws you in – one sunny afternoon, a woman walks to the bakery to buy two strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday. For some reason, the shop is empty – there are no customers, and no one behind the counter. The woman is not in a rush, so she sits down to wait for the pastry chef. Soon, another woman comes in, and they make small talk. “How old is [your son]?” the second woman asks. The first woman replies with this:

Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.

She tells us about her son’s death twelve years ago, and how she kept the strawberry shortcake they were meant to share one his birthday and watched it rot. When her husband told her to throw it out, she react violently:

I threw it in his face. Mold and crumbs covered his hair and his cheeks, and a terrible smell filled the room. It was like breathing in death.

I fell in love with Ogawa’s writing in this story. I know it’s translated, but it’s still superb – elegant and hypnotic, with details that tease your senses (I’m thinking of the mention of vanilla, strawberries, cream and the warmth of birthday-candle flames) or cut right into your heart and lungs. It’s the kind of thing that makes you pause to consider or savour what you’ve just read.

“Afternoon at the Bakery” remained my favourite Revenge story (I think I got attached, since it was the first), but with such a wonderful writing style, the others certainly did not disappoint. Ogawa’s great talent, it seems, lies in her absolutely exquisite details and the skilful ways in which she uses them. Most of the stories have rather odd plots. In “Old Mrs J”, the creepy old landlady of an apartment complex finds hand-shaped carrots growing in her vegetable garden. In “Sewing for the Heart” a woman asks a specialist bag maker to sew a bag for her heart, which is particularly delicate because it beats outside of her body. In “Welcome to the Museum of Torture”, a young woman takes a walk after her boyfriend leaves her, and ends up going on a tour through a museum of torture, imagining how she might use some of the devices on her boyfriend.

Besides the plots, there are many beautiful, quaint, tragic or bizarre details within the stories. In “Fruit Juice”, the narrator describes the way that the events of the story he just related “sank into a hole at the bottom of my sea of memories” giving the reader a vague sense that he’s lost something important but inexplicable. Another character describes a woman’s voice as having “an impressive coldness to it – I could almost imagine its tone freezing my ear drum”.

But the most impressive details are the ones that can’t really be quoted and are difficult to write about because they are scattered within and across stories, linking characters and tales, reminding us of sinister things, exposing eerie truths, or revealing the conclusions to earlier stories that ended ambiguously. The strawberry shortcake and the bakery from the first story are mentioned in a later narrative, and the reminder gives an ominous feel to the current tale. We learn about a character’s murder in one story, and when people are looking for him or mention him in later stories we recall why he was killed and the gruesome way in which he died. There are many elements of horror, entwined with the drama unfolding between the characters.

With these tiny but memorable details, Ogawa delicately links lives and stories, creating an unusual kind of novel composed of separate tales. It’s an interesting form; my only problem with it is that one or two of the stories are a bit dull, and seem to be there largely to provide links for others. But for the most part it works beautifully. Although most of the characters never meet each other, the events and artefacts of their lives join them and form a coherent whole for the reader.  There is also one notable recurring character – an obscure writer – who appears in several of the stories. We learn that she has actually written some of them, although whether we read her versions or the real-life events on which they are based is unclear. The book is enjoyably vague in that way – it’s not the kind of novel that offers answers or meaning or easy conclusions; instead it taunts and delights you with its intricacies. Ogawa has said that “one of the fundamental values of fiction is its power to express the inexplicable and the absurd” (Q&A with Yoko Ogawa) and I think that’s exactly what she does with Revenge.

Another notable thing is that almost all the characters are unnamed (a trademark of Ogawa’s according to the Q&A just referenced). The only characters with anything akin to names are Mrs J and Dr Y, and both are secondary characters. Every story is intimately narrated in the first person, and it can sometimes be unclear how old the “I” is or whether they are male or female. The location is completely anonymous too – there are no place names, no landmarks; the novel could be set in any well-developed country. The only suggestion that it might take place in Japan, where Ogawa lives, is that characters sometimes bow to each other in greeting or thanks.

Unencumbered by these specifics, the novel seems almost ghostly, and reading it can be a rather strange and hypnotic experience. But I like it a lot. It’s so well done, that names and places aren’t necessary. It’s a pensive rather than exciting read, but it’s the kind of book that can teach you to appreciate the qualities of good writing, particularly the way writers can manipulate certain elements of a story in order to leave an impression on the reader. Most authors can only dream of writing something this evocative, or writing a sentence or crafting an image that etches itself into the read. Yoko Ogawa is one of the few who can, and I’m glad to have found her.

 

Giveaway

Now, I my thoughts on Revenge have convinced you that it’s worth reading because I’m giving away two copies on Violin in a Void. One has been generously provided by Gabrielle Gantz at Picador, for residents of the USA and Canada. And since I don’t want everyone else to miss out on a chance to get a copy, I am providing one as well, via Book Depository. Here are the details:

  • To enter, follow me via email (sign-up on the homepage), WordPress or Twitter (@Violin_InA_Void) and leave a comment on this post. Be sure to mention whether you’re from the USA/Canada or the rest of the world.
  • The USA/Canada copy will be sent to the USA/Canada winner by Picador.
  • I will be sending a copy to the second winner via Book Depository, so you are only eligible if they ship to your country.
  • This giveaway will last for two weeks and ends at midnight (GMT+3) on 12 February.
  • I will choose the winners using random.org, and contact them on 13 February for their addresses. Both winners will be announced in a blog post shortly thereafter.

Thanks so much to Picador for sponsoring a giveaway, and good luck to all those who enter!

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