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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link