Originally published in 2009 as 贖罪 (Shokuzai).
English translation first published in 2017.
A chilling Japanese psychological thriller and Edgar Award finalist about four women, forever connected by one horrible day in their childhood — fifteen years later, someone wants to make sure they never forget.
When they were girls, Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko were tricked into leaving their friend Emily with a mysterious stranger. Then the unthinkable occurred: Emily was found murdered hours later.
The four friends were never able to describe the stranger to the police; the killer’s trail went cold. Asako, the bereaved mother, curses the surviving girls, vowing that they will be the ones to pay for her daughter’s murder…
When I read Confessions a little over four months ago I didn’t expect it to stay with me the way it has. That story grabbed me with its second person storytelling approach and its complex exploration of a horrible crime. I didn’t find it a particularly pleasant reading experience – not only because it offers no strand of positivity to cling onto but because the nature of crime crime, the murder of a young child, is always going to be affecting for any parent.
So, why am I putting myself through this again? The answer is because it is rare to find a book that continues to occupy your thoughts for such a long time and I was curious to see if her other translated work could do the same.
At this point a brief warning – I cannot really discuss this book without mentioning the crimes themselves. I will try and avoid being too detailed but there are plenty of triggers here so if in doubt I’d suggest passing over this post.
Penance shares much in common with Confessions. Each chapter is narrated by a different character offering their own perspectives on the same incident and exploring how it fits into the broader story of their lives which diverged afterwards. That incident is shocking and deeply upsetting and while we do get an answer as to who did the crime by the end of the book, the novel is more about how we respond to that sort of an event and how it changes people than it is about working out whodunit. It explores the links between events, some of them incredibly small, and how they can produce devastating, unforseen results. It also looks at how people may seek to deal with their pain and the inadvertant consequences of their choices. Finally, it is about how society as a whole responds to that crime and it, like Confessions, seems to question the nature of a law.
The novel concerns an event that happened when the book’s first four narrators were elementary-aged children, living in a rural town. The group were playing on school grounds during a public holiday when they are approached by a stranger who asks for their help to fix a problem in one of the school buildings. The fifth member of the group, Emily – a recent arrival from Tokyo, is chosen and when she does not return the group eventually investigate to find her dead.
The police question the four girls but they claim that they cannot remember what the stranger looked like causing the case to hit a dead end. Over the years that follow Emily’s mother makes several attempts to question them, hoping that something will jog their memories. Frustrated and forced to return to Tokyo, she tells the group that they must either find Emily’s murderer or do penance for the rest of their lives – a statement that each of them takes to heart and affects them in different but very powerful ways.
Each chapter of the first four chapters of the book explore what became of those girls and how they took those words to heart. All of them are deeply impacted by them and, unable to solve the case, seem to pay a sort of penance in their lives whether they are conscious of it or not.
This sort of an approach could easily feel repetitive but I felt that the author did a good job of repeating information when necessary to a character’s story but finding ways to address those common events more quickly when appropriate. For example the third chapter skips over the event itself entirely, reflecting that the character in question was less affected by the incident itself than the events that surrounded it.
I appreciated that while there are a lot of common characteristics between these four narrators, each has a very distinct voice and personality. While each of their penances are dark and painful, they are quite different and each feels tailored to their role within the group and the experiences they had. It would be fair to say that some of the experiences are unlikely but for Minato tragedy seems to beget more tragedy and so I could easily accept that as part of the view espoused by the author. Indeed I think it is rather the point of the novel that we are changed by our experiences and react to new ones through the prism of our previous ones.
The one story that I think feels a little out of place is the third one which is the chapter titled ‘The Bear Siblings‘. The penance in that chapter certainly is related to the main crime and yet I think you could argue that the other children’s experiences wouldn’t have happened were it not for Emily’s murder. I am not so sure that can be said of what she goes through and I am not sure I agree with Emily mother’s thoughts on those events when they are shared towards the end of the novel.
One of the criticisms I have seen in reviews of this book suggests that the events in the book are unrealistic or rely on coincidence. I have hinted above that I do not think that is true of the four individual narratives but I do think there is an element of coincidence involved in the explanation of what happened to Emily. To me that did not weaken the story however but fit with its theme that each action can have unintended effects – the idea that little ripples can eventually form a wave. I would add that while the things that happened to characters were sometimes fantastic, the characters’ responses to them always felt credible to me.
If I had a problem with these four accounts it was that I occasionally found that the economical prose made some parts of the stories a little challenging to follow, particularly in the chapters titled ‘An Unscheduled PTA Meeting’ and ‘The Bear Siblings’. At points I had to reread passages for clarity to be sure I knew which character was being discussed. In each instance it was clear when looking at sections carefully and I think it does reflect an idea that the book uses in several places that those characters are drawing parallels with their other experiences.
The explanation for the original crime struck me as powerful and, as with Confessions, I appreciated the thoughtful exploration of that idea of how choices have consequences. That being said, I can only reiterate that this is a deeply upsetting book. I think it needs to be in order to prompt the necessary response from the reader and from the characters but that does not make it comfortable to experience. In particular, be warned that in addition to being murdered, the child was also raped by her attacker and that while we do not experience that moment from her perspective, the state of her body afterwards is described.
While there is a question of who murdered Emily and why, I should stress that this isn’t a puzzle that the reader can really solve. They will not have enough information until right before the end to truly understand the crime, though they may be able to infer some clues that will be used to identify them at the end. I certainly wouldn’t suggest reading it for that purpose in any case.
Really this book, like Confessions, is about the themes and issues it chooses to address. It not only tells a compelling story of a truly horrific crime, it also offers some interesting reflections on life in the Japanese countryside as opposed to the cities and on the nature of guilt and how we respond to it, all told in a mix of second person voices which pull the reader closer into the tale.
It is not, I think, quite so punchy as Confessions. That novel tied its characters together even more closely, creating a stronger sense of cause and effect in their actions, and the epistolary format here is not quite as arresting as the lecture given at the start of that other novel. Still, I found it a dark and compelling book that will no doubt stay with me for some time, just as the other did.
The Verdict: A really dark and powerful read that is just as devastating as the author’s debut work, Confessions.
I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.