The Master Key by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Grove
The Master Key is a fascinating read that defies easy categorization. The cover of this Pushkin Vertigo reissue features a quote from a review in The Times that describes it as an ‘atmospheric Japanese Thriller’ yet while it has suspenseful moments, I think that gives a slightly inaccurate impression of what the book will be like.
Instead I think the book is best described as a series of puzzles and revelations that the reader slowly pieces together to form a clear impression of what has happened. Events are told out of order and often seem to be unconnected yet Togawa works them together in the most extraordinary way in the closing chapter and epilogue to make sense of them all.
The book is also somewhat unsettling, dealing as it does with the secret burial of a child and the sense of intrusion into our private spaces both physical and emotional. While there are few instances of violence explicitly shown, the reader is at times experiencing intrusions from the perspective of the person whose space is being violated and at others from the perspective of the voyeur. And, as we read, we come to see that the boundaries between those situations are less clear than they initially seem.
Togawa’s story is set in an apartment building inhabited exclusively by single women. At the start of the novel we are told that the building is about to be relocated a small distance to enable the road to be widened. The residents have been told that this can be achieved without their even needing to leave the building and that if they were to place a glass of water on a shelf during the move it would not spill.
As residents retreat into their rooms preparing to carry out this experiment at least one person within the building is aware that a secret will be unearthed when the foundations are exposed. We also learn that there is a nervous energy building among the residents as a master key that can unlock every door in the building had been stolen several months before, leading residents to feel uneasy in their own homes and that, at any moment, their secrets may be revealed. This is a truly unsettling idea that plays off our wish to believe that a locked door is a permanent barrier and it is incredibly effective.
From this starting point Togawa weaves a complex and often unsettling web of stories that overlap and inform each other. We learn a lot about the various inhabitants and the ways they have been disappointed in life as well as some of the cruelties and crimes they have committed. We are left to question, at points, who has taken the master key, what secret they are trying to reveal and why. Sometimes the answers to these questions are less clear than they seem.
Her characters are each well constructed and given the number we meet I was very impressed by how complex they were. Although the novel is quite short, I was surprised at just how developed they each were. Learning these women’s stories and seeing how they will all fit together was really satisfying.
I found this a really remarkable work and devoured it quickly. This was the first novel I have read by Masako Togawa and I was really impressed both by the depth of characterization as well as the sense of unease she builds in this world. At times I was left curious how some elements could be fully resolved, making the ending all the more striking and powerful. I hope more of Togawa’s work becomes available in translation soon.
Review copy provided through NetGalley. The Master Key is available in the UK by Pushkin Vertigo and will be released in the United States on March 27, 2018.
Update: I selected The Master Key as my Book of the Month for November 2017.