Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda, translated by Alison Watts
Originally published in 2007 as
English translation first published in 2022
Set in Tokyo over the course of one night, Aki and Hiro have decided to be together one last time in their shared flat before parting. Their relationship has broken down after a mountain trek during which their guide died inexplicably. Now each believes the other to be a murderer and is determined to extract a confession before the night is over. Who is the murderer and what really happened on the mountain?
In the battle of wills between them, the chain of events leading up to this night are gradually revealed in a gripping psychological thriller that keeps the reader in suspense to the very end.
I was not sure whether I ought to review Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight. That’s not because of concerns about whether it is a true genre work (it is), misgivings about its quality (it’s one of the best books I’ve read in months) or availability (it came out in English translation last year) – it’s simply whether I felt I could do it justice given the challenges inherent in writing about it. The problem is simple: avoiding spoilers.
It’s always a challenge when writing about books to navigate the line between discussing the aspects you enjoyed and giving too much away. Sometimes I look for an arbitrary line in the story up to which I’m happy discussing the plot, usually about a quarter to a third of the way in, and then focus on the characters and themes but in the case of this novel I’m not sure that works either. There is too much I could give away accidentally and even writing around aspects of the novel is only likely to draw more attention to them.
This review is going to be a little different than some of my others in that I am going to try and avoid specifics. You need to know the story’s starting point and the style of storytelling employed, but please forgive me if I am a little hazy on the details. My goal here is to help those who might enjoy this book come to it with as little information about the plot as possible to preserve the experience for them because I think it is really to the book’s benefit to come to it as fresh as possible.
Let’s start then by briefly outlining the premise. Aki and Hiro have decided that they will move out from their shared flat and go their separate ways. They have cleared the space of most of their belongings and, at the start of the novel, they will spend one last night talking, drinking and eating together before moving on. The reason is that a year earlier someone was murdered and they each believe the other responsible and are determined to get the other to confess their crime.
This concept really caught my imagination when I first read about the book because it suggests a cat and mouse game between the two, each trying to get the other to speak while avoiding revealing their own secrets. That would have been entertaining enough but the book becomes more than that, bringing in more complex themes concerning the nature of memory, truth and identity that mean that our understanding of actions and relationships shifts throughout the novel. At times this can be immensely satisfying and some of the most pleasing moments in the book for me were when I realized that I had misunderstood what had been happening, allowing me to revisit some of those elements in a new light.
The book is told in the first person from the perspectives of Aki and Hiro, their perspectives alternating between the chapters. While this storytelling structure can sometimes lead authors to continuously revisit the same narrative points, here the story continues to move forward as the characters reach back into their memories and reflect on what they have learned. That continuous narrative movement is part of what makes this such a fascinating, page-turning read even though there is little action taking place in the present day – just a conversation.
I think it is important to stress that last point again here as it will be crucial to the book’s appeal. Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight is a book that is about a crime and the piecing together of memories concerning it but while there are detective fiction elements to the story and tension builds throughout, it is never action-driven. While it is easy to see how the material might be taken in a more action-focused direction doing so would change the points of focus and produce a very different book.
So, who might this book appeal to? As I was reading this the thought that kept returning to me was that it had a lot in common with some elements found in the Charlotte Armstrong novels I have read (albeit leading to a different sort of ending). We have characters placing themselves willingly in a situation that they understand to be a dangerous one because they cannot resist the need to get answers. That compulsion to discover the truth is fascinating, particularly as we learn more about the way these characters feel about themselves and each other, because it demonstrates how even in a stripped-down, minimal and seemingly restrictive premise there is enormous scope for rich and complex storytelling.
As a complete experience, I found this novel to be quite fascinating but at this point I do need to acknowledge that some are likely to find its ending frustrating. Onda’s focus in the story is on her characters and the choices that they are making so as the truth comes into focus, the emphasis is put onto their character development and the themes of the piece rather than the neat and tidy resolution of a murder. That felt utterly in keeping with what had gone before – this is, after all, fundamentally a character study in an emotionally intense situation but those who are seeking a plot-focused conclusion or a really clever explanation of the crime may feel disappointed.
That being said, I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed reading this work. I appreciated the thoughtfulness and complexity of its themes and character development and I was thoroughly engaged in the search for truth that Onda takes us on. It is one of the most interesting books I have read so far this year – it had been a library loan so upon finishing it I immediately went and purchased a copy to keep. This is a book I can imagine returning to again in the future.
The Verdict: A rich and fascinating read that places complex and interesting characters in a truly compelling situation.
Second Opinions: Raven Crime Reads also recommends this work, saying they “loved the intensity of the relationship between the characters”.
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? Your local bookstore should be able to order a copy if they do not have it in stock. The ISBN number for this title is 978-1-913394-59-2.
If you prefer to shop online however, you can find a copy at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.