Penance by Kanae Minato

Survivor guilt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Five young girls sneak into their school playground on a holiday to practice volleyball. While there, a workman arrives and asks if one of them will help him do a small job in the changing room. It’s a while before the other girls notice that Emily hasn’t returned, and when they look for her, it’s too late – all they find is her body. None of the girls is able to describe the man well – they are young, they weren’t paying particular attention, they are suffering from shock. As time passes without an arrest, in her grief Emily’s mother tells them they must either give the police enough information to catch the killer, or do something that she will accept as appropriate atonement. She gives them a deadline – the statute of limitations on the crime will run out in fifteen years…

In Minato’s earlier excellent book, Confessions, she looked at the motivation for crime and at revenge. In this one, she takes a fascinating look at how a crime affects not only the direct victim, but the people touched by it in other ways. Each of the four surviving girls, now women, tells her tale in turn. We see how their immediate reactions to the crime were affected by their own personalities, and then Minato takes us into their families so that we can see how each of those personalities was formed. This provides a base for taking us forwards from the crime, seeing how it affected each child as she grew up – not just the horror of the day itself, but the guilt of knowing that they had neither protected Emily nor helped bring her killer to justice, and the fear of knowing that the killer is still at large knowing they are the only witnesses.

As the deadline for the statute of limitations approaches, we see how for each girl this leads indirectly to a kind of crisis. Minato doesn’t forget the grieving mother in all this – years on, does she still feel the same? Does she still require the girls to do penance, or has time enabled her to see that the girls were victims too? And lastly, almost as a minor story, will time allow the girls to recognise small clues that they missed in their youth, in time for the murderer to be caught?

When reading Japanese fiction, I often find the society so different from our Western one that it’s almost incomprehensible to me. I’ve commented in the past that there seems to be a huge disconnect between the generations, that young people seem to have rejected the values of their parents but haven’t yet found anything to replace them with, leaving a dangerous moral vacuum. Intriguingly, that isn’t the case with this one. Perhaps because it’s set in a small town rather than in Tokyo, the family structures seem stronger and more traditional, though we see clearly how sons are still more valued than daughters. Some of these families have problems, indeed, but the kind of problems we would be familiar with in our own society. I also noted that Minato mentioned in passing that there seems to be a slight move away from driving the children quite so hard towards educational success at the expense of all else – a small recognition of the harm that can be caused by the excessive stress that was being put on young people. And this is one of the reasons I enjoy her books – she always provides intriguing insights into society, especially family life and education, in modern Japan.

Kanae Minato

But she also tells a great tale! I was completely caught up in each girl’s story and, while there are moments that stretch credulity, it never goes past the breaking point. The characterisation is excellent, and though we see the murder again and again, each voice and perspective is original enough to stop it feeling repetitive. After the murder, the girls’ lives go off in different directions, so Minato has room to cover a lot of ground with four very different stories, but all linked to the central event so that with each telling the reader learns a little more about the lead up to and aftermath of the crime. And in the final chapters she manages to bring it all together, so that there’s a real feeling of resolution – not a slick happy ending, but a sense of closure for some of the characters at least. Another excellent novel from Minato – my tentative love affair with the strangeness of Japanese crime fiction continues…

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

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37 thoughts on “Penance by Kanae Minato

  1. Great review! This book sounds very intriguing!

    I love Japanese films, but didn’t understand some of the symbolism or emotional conflict in one of them. A friend who lived near Tokyo for ten years explained some of the subtext and why the emotional journey was more important than the external conflict. Did you find that to be the case with this book?

    • I have found that in the past, but this one feels slightly more in line with western crime writing somehow – the girls on the whole reacted in ways that didn’t feel quite so strange to me. But some Japanese crime novels have left me baffled – it can seem like an entirely different world…

  2. Oooh yes I am liking the sound of this one very much! A fresh perspective on the traditional murder tale and sounds like it is very well written to boot. Super review, too 😉

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, both her books have taken a different approach to crime fiction than the norm, and both have been excellent – I think I prefer this one, but that might just be because I’ve just finished it…

  3. I enjoyed Confessions a lot, so this one is very much in my sights for when it becomes available here in the colonies. Many thanks for a tantalizing account.

    • My pleasure, and I hope you enjoy this one too! I think I possibly prefer it to Confessions, though I liked that one very much too. But I felt more in tune with this one somehow – it didn’t discombobulate me to quite the same degree as some Japanese crime fiction has…

  4. Delighted to hear that you enjoyed this one so much, FictionFan. I’ve often thought that the impact of a crime on those around the victim is profound, and isn’t always given enough credit (is that the word? Attention?) in crime novels. It’s interesting that Minato explores that here. this one was already on my TBR – it’s moved up.

    • I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one, Margot – if anything, I liked it a little more than Confessions, I think, and you know I thought highly of that one. Yes, her approach in this one is unusual but it gives a good and credible picture of how the survivors of crime are still affected by it…

  5. You know, I have the same difficulty with anime. Recently, Domer and I watched one of those movies, and I was totally baffled at what was happening! I chalk it up to my unfamiliarity with Japanese culture. Not that I didn’t enjoy aspects of the thing, though. Perhaps I’d feel the same way with this novel, but it does sound like an interesting premise, and you’ve done a great review!

    • Thank you! 😀 Japan always feels much more ‘foreign’ to me than most other cultures do, and leaves me a bit baffled, especially around how parents and their children interact. But this one was actually more ‘normal’ than most Japanese fiction I’ve read, which I found intriguing in itself… I think because it’s set in a small town rather than the big city, maybe…

    • I haven’t read loads of Japanese fiction, but what I have read has always intrigued me – somehow the society feels more ‘foreign’ to me than a lot of other cultures do. And both Minato’s books have been great – definitely worth checking out…

  6. Have added it to my list of possibles……really enjoyed the review. I imagine that Japanese crime fiction, just as Japanese films, lend a unique perspective.

    • Funnily enough, I haven’t watched any Japanese films. I really should, and see if they have the same effect on me as their novels. If you do get a chance to read this one, I hope you enjoy it! 😀

  7. I’d already got my eye on this one following your earlier feature but it’s now been added to the wishlist. Your comments in the past about Japanese culture in crime fiction being so alien has made me a little wary of attempting any before, but it sounds as if this one the relationships are not quite so obscure. I do like the sound of the structure and it has made it onto the wishlist 😉

    • Hurrah! I do think you’ll probably like this one. Actually both her books are more ‘normal’ than some Japanese fiction I’ve read, although her first one sounded much more as if family life had broken down than this one does. I’ll be intrigued to know what you think of it.

  8. Great review…haven’t had a chance to pick up a Japanese fiction as yet but this sure tempts me to…plot sounds interesting and as it brings to light a very important subject of aftermath of a crime on its survivors…

    • Thank you! I haven’t read a lot of Japanese fiction but I’ve always enjoyed what little I have – somehow it feels very different. If you do get a chance to read this one, I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

    • I think there are only two available in English – this and Confessions, also excellent – though whether she’s written others I don’t know. But I like that her books take a different angle to the usual and always show a bit of what life is like in modern Japan… enjoy!

  9. The first line of your description reminded me a bit of Mystic River and Im always attracted to this type of stories! Insightful review 😀

    • Thank you! 😀 Just looked at the blurb for Mystic River and yes, I can see the similarity! I suspect Lehane’s will be much darker than this one though. Not that this is a light read by any means, but it concentrates more on the girls’ lives than on the crime aspect to a degree…

  10. Ooookay, I must confess that the synopsis made me mad. Four girls are traumatized after they find the dead body of their friend, and the mom tells them they have face punishment–as if they’ve been naughty and stole some cookies! And that there’s a clock on the punishment? Maybe I have to read it to get it, but if I were one of those kids, I would run home to MY mom and be all like, “Moooom! That lady is threatening meeeee!”

    • The suggestion in the book is that it was a pretty monstrous thing to do to the girls, so at least the author wasn’t trying to make out it was OK or justified. These Japanese books always make me think that children don’t confide in their parents the way we tend to these days – it’s a bit like our society from decades ago, when chidlren went out and played with each other and had a sort of private life away from parental control…

      • I think I’ve read somewhere that the reason Japanese children don’t confide as much in their parents is because they don’t want to be a “burden,” though I may be wrong, so someone tell me if I am! I usually didn’t confide in my parents because I didn’t want to get in trouble.

        • Ha! Yes, it was the getting into trouble that deterred me when I was a kid, then the not wanting to worry them when I was a bit older! Japanese fiction always makes me think the parents simply don’t understand their kids any more – a bit like the generation gap here in the west in the ’60s, maybe.

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