Confessions by Kanae Minato

confessionsDark and compelling…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Middle-grade teacher Yuko Moriguchi is about to retire from teaching following the tragic death of her young daughter in the school’s swimming pool. But her farewell speech is unusual to say the least, as she accuses two of her pupils of murdering her daughter and then tells them of how she plans to get her revenge…

Each time I read a Japanese novel I come away from it feeling more and more that it’s a society I simply don’t understand, and one that always seems to be deeply troubled. In this short novel, we know who the victim and murderers are from a fairly early stage, but we don’t know the motivations. The book is divided into sections, each told in the first person from a different viewpoint. Starting as it does with the deliberate murder of a child by other children, it’s hard to imagine that it could get darker as it progresses – but it does. However it’s written in a style that somehow prevents it from becoming too grim a read, perhaps because the crime itself is somewhat secondary to the stories of what has brought each of the characters to this particular point. There should be a credibility problem in that the likelihood of their being so many morally corrupted people in one place is remote. But the story is so absorbing that it becomes chillingly believable.

The society Minato describes is one where traditional family life is breaking down under the assault of modernism but, as I’ve found in Japanese fiction before, the old values seem to have been thrown out without new ones taking their place, leaving a kind of cultural or, in this case, moral vacuum. Minato looks at the role of women in particular, with each of the mothers in the book representing a different stage of this seeming breakdown. Yuko is a single mother and Minato shows how this is still much more frowned upon than it is in most Western societies. The mother of one of the boys is an old-fashioned stay-at-home mother, but we see clearly how this is becoming more difficult in a society where the children are growing up with very different values and outlooks. The other boy’s mother gave up the prospect of a glittering career when she married, but her unhappiness in the traditional role has grave effects on her son.

Kanae Minato
Kanae Minato

As well as seeing how the various families function – or rather, don’t function – Minato takes us inside the school system. She shows us a society where the drive for educational attainment is so strong that the children seem to be under enormous stress. They seem isolated – there is more rivalry than friendship and bullying is the norm, tolerated to a large degree by the authorities. If this is in any way an accurate picture of life in Japan, I was astonished to learn that teachers are expected to be on-call to deal with problems the children might have outside school – another indication that the role of the parent is dangerously weak. The absence of fathers as authority figures is also striking and the overall sense is of children drifting without any strong moral guidance. I would normally say this all makes the book hard to believe, but in fact it ties in with a lot of the unease I’ve felt when reading other Japanese fiction.

I realise my review might have made the book sound like some kind of social sciences paper, but in fact the story is intriguing and very readable. As the well-drawn characters reveal their individual stories, I found my sympathies were constantly fluctuating. No-one comes out of the book as a hero but the line between victim and villain becomes so blurred that in the end it’s difficult to wholeheartedly condemn. There is one exception to that, in my opinion, but to reveal who and why would be a major spoiler. A strange book, dark and compelling – one of the more original crime novels I’ve read recently, and highly recommended.

This is another one that I found via an excellent review from Raven Crime Reads – thanks again, Raven! Keep up the good work! 😉

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mulholland Books.

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36 thoughts on “Confessions by Kanae Minato

  1. Cool! And you know, I like that the author tells it from different viewpoints. You know, I’m assuming this was translated…so do you notice anything about the translation or anything like that?

    And the professor must say the idea of kids killing kids (especially in a swimming pool, for some reason) is rather spooky. Did she die by drowning?

  2. Another superb review that makes me want to read this book. A couple of years ago I read a number of books about children killing children so I have an excuse to add this one to that collection. I also have never read any Japanese crime novels and your previous comments already had me thinking that I should… in conclusion this is going on the TBR….

  3. I’m not quite sure why, but I’m reminded of the opening line of a Joyce Carol Oates story, “Expensive People.”

    It begins: “I was a child murderer.”

    Now, Oates being the purposeful writer that she is, we know she’s playing mind games with us because we can’t tell from the first sentence whether it’s written by an adult killing a child or a child killing a child, or a child killing and adult. The narrator goes on to explain.

    In any case, this story does sound creepy, especially since there seems to be so much surface restraint in Japanese culture.

    • That’s a great first line – intriguing. I think a lot of the darkness of this one is that all the characters are presented on the face of it as if they are somehow normal – which makes their extreme behaviour all the more discombobulating. I keep hoping that Japanese society can’t be as broken as their books always make me feel it is – perhaps it’s a literary form and not meant to be taken as literally as it reads. But I’m not sure…

      • I think it’s interesting how so many Japanese novels seem to focus on bullying at school even if they are set many years later. I am thinking of Malice by Higashino and Grotesque by Kirino (which I thought was too long) and even Murakami’s new book by the sounds of it.
        I usually avoid books that delve back into school days (c’mon, it was so long ago, you’re an adult now!) but Japanese writers seem to do it well.

        • Yes, bullying seems to be a theme that runs through a lot of Japanese fiction, so I’m guessing it must really happen. And it always seems much more extreme bullying than most of what goes on here. And there also seems to be huge gulf between the young people and the older generations – much more than here. It’s interesting…

  4. This is definitely one I have my eye on, Fiction Fan. It sounds like a very compelling read. And just from your review (and Raven’s), it sounds like a very creepy sort of novel that won’t let go, if I may use that overused expression. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Definitely one worth reading if you can squeeze it in, Margot. It’s one of those ones that tells a great story but also has time to say a lot about a different culture. Oh, and it’s fairly short… 😉

  5. This one certainly sounds interesting. One word that stood out of that review was ‘compelling’. So no matter what else was happening, you had to keep reading. That’s what makes a good book 🙂

    • Yes, and this one really was. Although she kind of told us the end in the first chapter, she still managed to make it intriguing enough for us to want to know why it happened…

  6. East and west seldom understand one another. All of the stories I’ve read where east and west get together it has been west learning the ways of the east (i.e. Shogun, The Last Samurai). There are some good qualities of the eastern populations that Americans, at least, might profit from studying.

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