The Earthquake Bird by Susanna Jones

Originally published in 2001.

Lucy Fly’s friend is dead, her lover has disappeared, and as far as anyone is concerned, she’s as good as guilty.

Trapped in the interrogation room, Lucy begins to unravel two stories. One, for the police, is a spare outline, offering more questions than answers. The other–the real one, if you believe her–is a gripping dive into an obsessive mind, revealing the checkered past that brought her to Japan, her complicated friendship with Lily, and a tempestuous affair with a missing Japanese photographer named Teiji. As she excavates the dangerous secrets–both past and present–that haunt her waking mind, Lucy relates an unsettling life story that spans bustling Tokyo, the British countryside, and remote Japanese islands, each step taking us closer to the chilling truth about Lily’s death.

I had never heard of The Earthquake Bird prior to picking up a copy at the library earlier this week. I clearly didn’t read the blurb in any great depth given I was surprised to realize it was set in Japan! It was very much an impulse decision when I found myself bookless and knowing that I had a potentially long wait ahead of me.

Most of The Earthquake Bird takes place during an extended interrogation in which the novel’s protagonist, British-born Lucy Fly, is being questioned about the brutal murder of her friend Lily.

We quickly learn that Lucy is determined not to be helpful to their investigation. A great example of that is how she chooses not to tell the police that she speaks Japanese fluently when the interrogation begins. Questions are evaded or answered with as little information as possible, making it clear that she is hiding something though we are not directly told what that is. At this point in the novel we have to infer things from hints in throwaway remarks.

There are, it turns out, two mysteries for the reader to uncover. The question of who killed Lily is presented as the most pressing and appears to be the focus of the novel yet I would argue that the questions concerning Lucy’s past and recent actions and the motives that lie behind them are the real heart of the book.

While Lucy dodges the questions in the interrogation we do get to hear the thoughts and memories they provoke. Some of those memories are quite recent and directly relate to her experiences with Lily but others go back much further and it is these that help give her character a clearer definition.

The picture we build of Lucy is a complex and sometimes quite conflicted one. These complexities and contradictions can be seen in each of her relationships in the novel and make her an intriguing and enigmatic protagonist.

I think some of the most interesting aspects and observations about her character relate to her sense of identity and the ways she is defined by others. Lily, a very recent and non-integrated arrival in Japan, continually tries to tie her to Yorkshire and refers to it as Lucy’s home, yet Lucy has long since shed that identity.

I found it easy to understand that and many other parts of her character, making the exploration of her background and personality all the more interesting to me. She struck me as highly credible and when aspects of her past were revealed they built on and explained behaviors we had already witnessed rather than attempting to spring surprises on the reader.

In addition to Lucy there are two other significant characters in the novel – her friend Lily and boyfriend Teiji. While each plays important roles in the story I felt neither character was rendered with quite as much complexity as Lucy. This is appropriate given that our focus should be on Lucy but it does mean that both characters behave largely predictably. That being said, it would be difficult to dig deeper into those characters given the story is being told in Lucy’s voice and she views both fairly superficially.

The novel is at its best when exploring Lucy’s character and facets of Japanese life. Jones does a pretty good job of giving us a sense of life in modern Tokyo, also taking the action outside the city in a couple of memorable sequences. As Lily is a newcomer to the city, Lucy is able to explain some things to her and also to the reader. This also gives us a handy way to read some of her observations and reactions to some parts of Japanese life as an outsider.

While the exploration of Lucy’s character becomes the focus of much of the novel, Jones does have to resolve the murder plotline at the end of the story and provide us with answers. Here I feel the novel’s brevity counts heavily against it as it quickly becomes clear how each element is connected and will be used in the conclusion.

There are no great moments of surprise or shock, nor is there much action. Rather the book is a series of brief glimpses at key moments in Lucy’s life to help us understand her.

Another issue arises from the cast of characters being very small. This means that the reader has very limited options to pick from which makes playing detective with this story a largely unrewarding experience.

Readers should be aware that the clues are psychological so those seeking a more traditional puzzle may prefer to look elsewhere. However, those who enjoy digging into motivation and trying to understand a character’s emotional and general psychological state will likely find this an interesting read.

The Verdict: The book’s greatest strength is its secretive and enigmatic narrator. The murder plot is interesting but its conclusion is not particularly surprising.

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