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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.
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.