It's January 6, 2002. The body of Yoshino, a female insurance saleswoman, is found at Mitsue Pass, an eery inland spot in the southernmost region of Japan, rumoured to be home to ghosts. A young construction worker, Yuichi, is soon arrested by the Nagasaki police on suspicion of strangling the victim.
I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to read VILLAIN, although the Japan Book News quote on the back of the book "... lays out a panorama of modern Japanese society, a patchwork composed of people of various classes and occupations..." really appealed. And the book most definitely did not disappoint.
Intricate, telling, tightly woven, tense and yet somehow languid and flowing, VILLAIN was an outstanding read. Not just because of the way that the identity of the murderer slowly creeps up on you, but also because of the way the various voices of the characters grab the reader and hold your attention. I understand from a chat with a friend of mine that the original Japanese version may have used particular dialects or very individual voices for each of the characters that clearly transmits their origins / position in society. That aspect isn't as obvious in the English version, but there are still enough elements in the style to make you realise there are differences.
VILLAIN is not a whodunnit nor is it a book about justice, revenge or resolution. It's more about the life choices that can quickly turn one person into a victim and another into a murderer. It's also a rather telling look at a lot of aspects of Japanese society - pressure on the young to conform, and how so many of those societal "norms" result in a quiet sort of despair - a longing for connection. It also shows how the stratas of society impact that. There are aspects of the life of the elderly which are held up to scrutiny as well - ultimately this is not a book which pulls much in the way of punches as it looks at the lives of most of the characters.
Whilst this book is definitely a thriller, it's a slow burning, dark and quite moving. The action is pushed along in a series of chapters told in the different voices of the characters, frequently in differing timeframes as the reader is taken backwards and forwards before the death of Yoshino and after. Yoshino, a young woman strangely lost somewhere between her daytime job as an insurance saleswoman and her night-time activities which veer closely towards a sort of casual prostitution, but always with this clanging sense of a search for love, acceptance, connection. Her background of loving, albeit marginalised parents, is contrasted strongly by that of the man she meets via an on-line dating service. Yuichi is a young man with much to resent in his life. Dumped by his mother into the care of his grandparents as a very young child, he now works in construction and struggles with the role of support to those now ailing grandparents. Yuichi's expression of individuality is all in his car, his love life as bleak and opportunistic as Yoshino. These two somehow seem to be destined, in other ways you can feel the tension as both of them struggle against the reality of their likely fates versus their ultimate desires.
An overwhelming reading experience that is really going to appeal to readers who like thoughtful, discomforting and quite confrontational reading, VILLAIN is one of those books that will stay with me.
RED QUEEN - H.M. Brown
Shannon and Rohan Scott have retreated to their family's cabin in the Australian bush to escape a virus-ravaged world. After months of isolation, Shannon imagines there's nothing he doesn't know about his older brother, or himself – until a stranger slips under their late-night watch and past their loaded guns.
There's an immediate dive into the here and now with the opening chapter, each of which is a self contained character study, and each chapter grouping is titled appropriately. Honey Brown touches gently on each chapter as if it were in preparation for a scene change in a film or play.
This kind of novel usually does offer up some futuristic and frightening prophecy for the future with a moral message that can't be avoided, rather like the surfer riding the wave of catastrophe. The biological concoction that is Red Queen is not explained in any great detail, so you are required to take it on board without really knowing how it is going to affect the outcome. The virus itself is not of great importance, more a means to the end of placing these people in such isolated and stressful circumstances.
Despite a couple of corny endorsements bandied about upon the release of this novel, you truly won't be up all night finishing this novel. It is only a short piece of work. Yes it is a psychological thriller and with all good reads of this kind, the plot is organically determined by the nuances and subtleties of the character's interaction. The author has straddled the fence between thriller and drama novel with this work, despite its science fiction premise. It is not a technical how-to survival novel by any means, and there's no slow march of blank eyed zombies to encounter. Australians wanting to read a disaster novel set uniquely in their home turf won't find it makes much of a difference as this novel could just has easily been set in the Canadian Rockies or some other isolated and rugged environment.
RED QUEEN is economically styled with a nice eye to the baser instincts of man in extreme circumstances. As a debut novel it serves well to introduce H.M. Brown as a new talent and will be one of those novels talked about in book clubs and readers groups with great interest.
BLEEDING HEART SQUARE - Andrew Taylor
It's 1934, and the decaying London cul-de-sac of Bleeding Heart Square is an unlikely place of refuge for aristocratic Lydia Langstone. But as she flees her abusive marriage there is only one person who she can turn to - the genteelly derelict Captain Ingleby-Lewis, currently lodging at no 7.
Storytelling or Storyweaving? BLEEDING HEART SQUARE is a classic example of a carefully woven psychological suspense story written by one of the English masters. Mind you, this isn't going to be a book for everyone. It's one of those stories that starts out with central threads that slowly are interwoven towards the conclusion.
Something has happened in connection to 7 Bleeding Heart Square. In 1934, Lydia Langstone seeks refuge there from her violent husband. It's a decaying London cul-de-sac, in a time that is feeling the threat of war. It's a seedy part of the city and the people who live in Number 7 are all somewhat marginalised. Not least of all Lydia's estranged father, Captain Ingleby-Lewis, who is determinedly drinking himself into oblivion. Turning to the Captain is safe for Lydia - she's got a difficult relationship with her mother, at the very least, a supporter of her abusive husband. For Lydia life with her father brings no expectations, a brand-new start. Despite the spectre of the scandal of a divorce, the problem is not Lydia and her father, who learn to rub along together surprisingly quickly, but rather events that seem to weave in and out of the house at Number 7. Unknown to Lydia the middle-aged spinster that owns the house - Miss Penhow vanished 4 years earlier, and there are people who are very keen to find out what happened to her. Many of those people make their way to Number 7 as a starting point, unaware of other's interest. The story unfolds between Lydia's day to day life, as she slowly becomes aware of things not quite right in the house and surrounding area; and a narrative of another life - eventually revealed as Miss Penhow's own words.
There's a sense of slowness about parts of the book that the reader needs to accept for what they are. Taylor is an expert at taking the reader just to the brink of a discovery, a change, an event; then rapidly moving the focus somewhere else. As the day to day events of Lydia's life seem to distract from Miss Penhow's own narrative; as the story of Miss Penhow slowly reveals itself, the action moves around and changes direction and weaves itself slowly into a full picture. The overall atmosphere of the book sets it well in 1930's London - the seedy nature of the location, the underlying political torment in a society feeling the threat of war, the clash of the aristocracy and the less well off. Even the forays into the countryside illustrate the difference between lives then and now.
Not a book for fans of crimes up front, heaps of action, investigations and rapidfire pace, BLEEDING HEART SQUARE is psychological suspense at its strongest. It's a manner of storyweaving that Taylor seems to excel in. All the while that the story builds to it's final conclusion there's a knowledge that something has happened, there's an assumption that something dreadful has happened to Miss Penhow but there's no proof and there's no certainty. At the same time, the reader can't help but wonder if Number 7 Bleeding Heart Square will somehow weave Lydia's fate for her as well.