Japan Fiction II

Books on Japan: Japanese Fiction

Japan Fiction 2

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding.

by Jackie Copleton
Hutchinson 2015
294 pages
ISBN: 9780091959067

Few Western writers apart from Arthur Golden and Kazuo Ishiguro in his early novels have attempted to fashion a Japanese narrator, much less one portraying the unique horrors of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Yet that is the task Copleton has set herself in her debut novel. While she has created a clever narrative driven by three competing records of the past - the aging female narrator's own bitter commentary, the diary of her daughter, lost in the bombing, and the letters of the dastardly handsome doctor who affects both their lives - the temptation to inject cultural authenticity has proven too great, and ironically it is the very act of highlighting the 'Japaneseness' of its subject that prevents the novel from creating an authentic Japanese voice.

As Ishiguro brilliantly captured in An Artist of the Floating World (set in Japan's other atom-blighted city), the essence of Japan, both positive and negative, may reside in the unsaid. By labelling her novel A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, and starting each chapter with an excerpt from what we find only in the final acknowledgements is a real dictionary - namely, An English Dictionary of Japanese Culture - Copleton is ironically endeavouring to define the Land of the Rising Sun.

Though the narrator has lived for decades in the West to escape the horrors of the bombing of her hometown, she remains Japanese at heart, as evidenced by her resistance to learning English, her indifference to her host country the United States, and the joy she feels at her belated return home. She has not been significantly westernized; nor is the novel about rapprochement between East and West, apart from its final brief representation of an interethnic marriage. The title is thus as much a misstatement about the intent of the novel as it is an unwitting embodiment of the authorial misunderstanding that underlies that very title - a dictionary may lead to mutual understanding, but it is not about mutual understanding: its imparting of wisdom is one-way. Conversely, a cultural novel is about mutuality: it should not instruct us in the ways of a culture, as if they are some anthropological other, but rather bring them to life in the mind of the reader, and thereby spark empathy. If in fact the author means the eventual mutual understanding of her characters, who are almost all Japanese, then she misdirects us with these overbearing cultural-dictionary definitions every few pages. Her intent is clearly for the chapter that follows each definition to illustrate the 'insight', but this narrative device is too heavy-handed and repetitive to it to be anything but obvious, and it is at odds with the personal journey of the narrator.

Indeed, this preoccupation with providing information about Japan, rather than trying to portray it organically in the course of telling her story, prevents Copleton from breathing life into her characters. When you set up a narrative whose structure depends on the writings of three different characters, it's important to give them distinct voices, but bookended by cultural references they all end up sounding like the author, filled with imagery and insights that would be beyond the preoccupations and phraseology of, say, the average teenage diarist. This perhaps explains why at times the daughter's words are, awkwardly, paraphrased by the mother before returning to direct quotes.

The mother, being the narrator, is most fully developed as a character, her desire for vengeance on the rogue Sato quite believable in its intensity. When a character makes me angry, I am involved as a reader, and this is where Copleton succeeds. It is too bad that Japan itself remains on the surface and leaves me cold. It was likely not Copleton's intention, but for me the most compelling character is the one we hear nothing from directly - Sato's long-suffering wife Natsu. She quietly engineers the embittered narrator's salvation from behind the scenes, and at the same time, perhaps, is giving the author herself lessons in the essence of Japanese culture.

Richard Donovan

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Sayonara, Gangsters

by Genicihiro Takahashi

Vertical Inc.

ISBN: 1-932234-05-5
224 pp

College dropout, former student activist, veteran of the Japanese penal experience (one year in prison for aforementioned activism), one-time porn director, and poet, Genichiro Takahashi is the enfant terrible of Japanese letters. His Sayonara Gangsters is a wild, hysterical, and tender tale that almost defies description. The "action" takes place somewhere and sometime in the future in which people have no names. For lovers this presents a problem: what to call one another. The two main characters of Sayonara Gangsters decide upon Nakajima Miyuki Song Book for the woman, and Sayonara, Gangsters for the man and narrator, who is a teacher at a poetry school. Their milk-and-vodka loving cat is named Henry IV.

The first part of the novel is about Sayonara, Gangsters's former lover and their daughter, who is called both Caraway and Green Pinky. At a point in which the novel appears to be settling into something a reader might vaguely recognize as "normal" - couple have child, are happy, begin to build a life - they receive a postcard from City Hall informing them of the impending death of their daughter. Sayonara, Gangster then describes his daughter's trip to the approved cemetery and burial therein - while Green Pinky talks to him throughout.

In the second section, Sayonara, Gangster talks about his "job" at the poetry school, admitting that he has essentially no idea what he is doing. That, moreover, if there were some secret to writing poems - what the students expect to be taught - he wouldn't tell anyone but would rather write poems and become a Nobel laureate. The final part of the novel revolves around three yakuza who enroll in the poetry school - and then are shot and killed by the police. As weird as it sounds, the scene is simultaneously funny and stunning and vivid. As is the entire work. Michael Emmerich's translation is lively and captures the maniacal and protean talents of Sayonara, Gangsters author Genichiro Takahashi. This book cannot be recommended highly enough. Read it!

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The Informer

by Akimitsu Takagi

Soho Press (1999)

ISBN: 1-5694-7155-X
224 pp

The Informer is an interesting look at Japan during the years when its economy was just beginning to take off, as this book was written in the mid-1960s.

The narrative moves along at a steady pace, relating the story of Shigeo Segawa, an unmarried, unemployed, down on his luck stockbroker, a man who will do almost anything for money. Almost broke, he is made an offer for a job where the money sounds almost too good to be true, as an industrial spy.

However, things get complicated for him when he realizes that he must spy on his old school friend, a man who married Segawa's true love, and at the same time keep up the pretense of doing honest' business. When the friend turns up murdered, Segawa is a prime suspect, but as always, nothing is what it really seems.

Issues of morality and the ambiguity of a so-called moral stance are also examined, and fully fleshed-out characters with human traits of both heroism and deep flaws are shown, lending the book a further degree of authenticity. Takagi has a keen eye for both male and female characters, inhabiting their thoughts and deeds in equal measures of compassion, revealing their dilemmas and how they really view their lives and those of the people around them, making for a deeper and more complex mystery that looks at all aspects of the principal character's lives rather than just the main event.

The police procedural aspects of the story are told with an authoritative realism, and the various twists and plot contrivances keep one reading on, a sure sign that this an author in control of his craft.

Takagi has a very straightforward and uncomplicated writing style, making it easy to get into the story and dip back into if one has to put the book down. The translation can feel a bit stilted at times in the dialogue but overall this is a good read that offers great insights into Japanese life that are still somewhat relevant today.

David White

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Three Views of Crystal Water

by Katherine Govier

ISBN: 0-00-718039-x
400 pp

This is the tale of Vera, who, finding herself motherless at age 6, now must take care of her grandfather in 1920's Canada. In her teens, she is then taken by her grandfather's mistress to a remote island in Japan.

After years of isolation and loneliness in a faraway, she finally finds a place where she finds solace and comfort. At this point, she meets a mysterious man, a ceremonial sword polisher. This section of the novel is lyrical, in places reminding one of Isabel Allende's prose. The sword polisher brings her back into touch with the outside world and thus the mayhem the Japanese military is causing in pre-war China. World War II then breaks out, forcing Vera to leave the island, the sword polisher, and return to Canada.

She vows to return to Japan to escape her Canadian "exile." A lyrical and loving work.

C Ogawa

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Dragon Dance

by Peter Tasker

Kodansha International

ISBN: 4-7700-2948-9
266 pp

Like its title, Peter Tasker's novel of political intrigue in near-future Japan takes a few twists and turns and lets off a few fireworks, but tends to take the focus off the people underneath the flashy trappings.

Tasker obviously knows his subject, and has a deft touch at tracing large and all-too-real sociopolitical fracture points in the Asia-Pacific area and extrapolating from them into this near-future thriller. But as with many such page-turners, he is content to rely on origami-thin characters to carry the story a plot (gasp!) to assassinate a popular political figure.

When the 'feisty' protagonist, glamorous blonde journalist Martine, is not feverishly filing stories at her computer or convincing reluctant sources to reveal all with her honey-tongued, flawless Japanese, she is doing yoga or karate, or roller blading in the park. It is a small blessing that we are not privy to her favourite colour. Her token insecurity is the insidious weight gain that seemingly eludes the Japanese women around her. And this is the most fully developed character in a cardboard-cutout shadow-play of political demagogues, shifty Chinese military types and inscrutable but lovable Japanese males who will never commit.

Tasker could also have put a bit more imagination into renaming commercially sensitive brands - anyone for spiked orange juice at "Starjacks"?

Still, taken as an extended essay and a kind of prelude to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Dragon Dance's portrayal of power relations between China, Japan and the US may make thought-provoking reading both for the initiate and the jaded foreigner in Japan. The latter will find many well-phrased points of recognition in Tasker's wry prognostications of an alternate-world Japan; the former may come away wondering what is the real Japan and what is the tweaked. Whichever the case, it is an enjoyable and undemanding read.

Richard Donovan

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Kafka on the Shore

by Haruki Murakami

ISBN: 1400043662
448 pp

Author of acclaimed works The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood, Murakami is Japan's leading writer of fiction. He is an original, offbeat writer with a wild and uninhibited imagination. In his latest work, Kafka on the Shore, the 15-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away from home on a quest to find his long-lost mother and sister and to be rid of his father's prophecy.

As he flees, so too does the World War II veteran Nakata, an older, retarded man whose quiet life has been turned upside down by a murder. Nakata suffered an unstated injury during the War that left him unable to read or write but able to talk to cats. This double odyssey brings Kafka and Nakata metaphorically together, as they both struggle to understand their respective journeys and what life has in store for them.

Murakami has never been shy about blurring the line between reality and, for lack of a better word, the oddly unreal. And true to form, in Kafka the reader is treated to the following: fish raining from the sky, a pair of Imperial Army soldiers unaged and still in the forest, and even a brief appearance by the characters Colonel Sanders (as a pimp) and Johnnie Walker.

Murakami is that odd writer who manages to pull off post modern, biting work that says something - and is at the same time fun to read. Both in Japan and abroad, he has been dismissed by some as lightweight - in part no doubt because of his popularity. However, mixing high- and low-brow, Murakami blends and spins wonderful and wild tales. There are references to fashion, jazz, popular music, Truffaut, Natsume Soseki, and many more. In Kafka, a prostitute quotes Hegel; Greek tragedy and Plato put in an appearance; and then, of course, there is the talking cat. It might feel Lite, but Murakami is deep.

Nakata and Kafka converge though never meet in rural Shikoku, both on a metaphysical quest for an "entrance stone" that Nakata must open and close. For the younger boy, this is a passage into adulthood; for the older man, a search for a soulmate.

For Murakami fans, this is a must; for those yet to experience Murakami's world, Kafka on the Shore is an excellent place to start.

C. Ogawa

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Death in Midsummer and Other Stories

by Yukio Mishima

ISBN: 0-81120-117-1
181 pp

Death in Midsummer and Other Stories contains ten stories chosen personally by Mishima for translation into English. They exhibit the vast depth and breadth of Mishima's talent. The title story is an infinitely sad tale of a young wife's long journey through sadness after the death of two of her children.

The beautifully described environs of the main character are the clues to her true feelings. Mishima's gory version of patriotic duty in "Patriotism" reflects the author's obsession with suicide. The story may be seen as Mishima's attempt to place the stamped-out samurai ethic in the modern era, using the characters of the young Lieutenant and his unswervingly loyal wife.

It also prefigures Mishima's bloody ritual suicide in 1970. Mishima remarked the story "contains both the best and worst of my literature." The story Seven Bridges is a perspective on the role of the geisha, deeper and more human than a saccharine Memoirs of a Geisha-style view. It also contains wonderful description of nighttime Tokyo in the immediate post-war era. The ending is perhaps the most enigmatic of the collection; Mishima, a writer who did not suffer lazy readers gladly, made this story somehow the most intriguing and least satisfying in the collection.

One of the most remarkable stories is "The Priest of Shiga Temple and His Love." After a somewhat tedious description of the Pure Land (reflecting Mishima's lifelong interest in various forms of Buddhism), it turns into a charming little love story. The two unlikely lovers are a Great Priest and an Imperial Concubine of an unnamed ancient era. Their love affair is consummated in a way both classically Japanese and uniquely Mishima.

Three Million Yen contains a twist abrupt enough to warrant re-reading. The two main characters are expertly drawn and their faith in each other as an antidote to despair is touching, whatever cannot be discerned about their motivation. The relatively insubstantial piece The Pearl, often praised and much anthologized, is probably the weakest piece in the collection.

Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata observed that "a writer of Mishima's caliber comes along only once every two or three hundred years in our history." This volume serves as an excellent introduction to this literary powerhouse. It is also quite simply one of the finest collections of short stories you are likely to find in any language. Very highly recommended for anyone with a taste for short story writing elevated to an art form.

Court Merrigan

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Read more about Yukio Mishima


by Natsume Soseki

Kodansha International

ISBN: 4770021224
176 pp

Botchan is probably one of the most popular Japanese novels ever written. Most Japanese would have read the book or at least know the story. This book, an English translation of the original Japanese version tells the story of Botchan, the narrator and main character in the novel.

A teacher, raised and educated in Tokyo heads out to the country-side to take the post of a mathematics teacher. From family-ties to teacher-student relationships to teacher-teacher relationships, the novel unwinds to reveal the way Japanese society functions. With characters as colorful and interesting as their nicknames sound, the novel makes for easy reading and its very essence lies in its simplicity and honest display of human emotions. Read the novel to understand just why Botchan is a universal favorite.

Bradley Mawer

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Wrong about Japan

by Peter Carey

ISBN: 1400043115
158 pp

Two-time Booker Prize-winner Peter Carey turns his hand to non-fiction with this short, entertaining study of contemporary Japan. Inspired by his twelve-year-old son's passion for manga, the two visit Tokyo where they encounter Japan's most famous animators and illustrators, sword makers, workers at Mister Donuts and transvestite manga archivists while trying to make sense of a country where so much remains just out of view.

Carey could have called his book "Lost In Translation," if the film hadn't got there first. As it is, the title is something of a misnomer. It's not so much that he is wrong about Japan, but like any visitor he is surprised, pleased and bewildered by what he finds under the surface. The subtitle, "A Father's Journey with His Son," tells us more about the story, as the father, who goes in pursuit of the "real Japan" (Carey's speech marks) of kabuki and samurai, is given an alternative perspective by his son's appreciation of the Japanese youth culture that has spread worldwide.

At just 158 pages, including a number of well-chosen illustrations from manga, the book is more of an extended essay than a novel. Carey is an outsider, yet his interpretations are keen and insightful. Long-term residents may not find much enlightenment, but Wrong About Japan is an enjoyable read that reflects the growing influence of Japan on global culture.

Will Marquand

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Fires on the Plain

by Shohei Ooka

Translated by Ivan Morris

ISBN: 0-8048-1379-5
224 pp

Both a soldier and professor of literature in his lifetime, Shohei Ooka weaves in his own experiences as a POW during WWII to present the story of Private Tamura in the unforgettable war story Fires on the Plain.

Abandoned by his company on Leyte Island, in the Philippines, as it is losing in a slow, agonizing battle with American forces, Tamura has nowhere to go, nothing to do. As he becomes further and further removed from the society of his regiment, his peers, Tamura begins to fall apart. He has come down with consumption and as such is no longer of any use to his platoon, which is facing annihilation.

Food is the primary obsession of Japanese commanders - there simply isn't enough. The dying and wounded are therefore sent to the field hospital to be kept until they expire - or are kicked out when their food supply runs out. When Tamura, however, returns from a brief visit to the hospital, his commander slaps him brutally. You damned fool! D'you mean to say you let them send you back here? He is thus sent back again; the hospital, however, will not let in patients who don't have their own food. Without food, patients are pronounced cured and sent on their way. And thus begins an existential and brutal journey into a heart of darkness.

The story focuses on the gradual and permanent removal from society of Private Tamura. Slowly but surely, his ties to society are severed. Tamura, an intelligent and decent man, is thus completely alone in a war zone. He doesn't have a reason to die, so he stumbles about the Philippine countryside in search of food. While searching for sustenance, he must avoid both the local people and American soldiers. During his trials, Tamura carries on an internal dialog on his situation, which reads like a treatise on the existence of God. The imagery is poetic and horrifying, a portrait of a man's descent into hell. Haunting and powerful.

C. Ogawa

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Some Prefer Nettles

by Junichiro Tanizaki

Vintage Classics

ISBN: 0-0992-8337-9
160 pp

Some Prefer Nettles, by Junichiro Tanizaki, portrays both a man and a country plunged head-on into the modern world. Tanizaki gives the age-old conflict between new and old ways a wasabi-strength Japanese twist. In 1920s Japan, the main character, Kamame, fancies himself modernized, i.e., "Westernized". He has encouraged his wife to have an affair; he is involved with a devious Eurasian prostitute. He attempts to avoid dealing with his imminent divorce from a wife "he had nothing against: they simply did not excite each other"; instead, he pursues meaningless projects like searching an English version of Arabian Nights for racy passages.

He has "an intense feeling of loneliness and deprivation when he thought of the emotional life of the Japanese", and longs for the passionate, woman-worshipping love of the West. But despite his thin cloak of modernism, Kamame is increasingly drawn to Japan's older traditions. These are personified by his father-in-law, who is obsessed with maintaining "Old Japan" against Westernizing modernizers.

Though originally a Tokyoite, he has decided the capital is too modern. He retires to Kyoto, takes a very young mistress, O-hisa, who he schools in the traditional arts and etiquette, and devotes himself to the contemplation of old-style Bunraku puppetry, with which he attempts to entice the wayward younger generation. To his surprise, Kamame finds himself fascinated by the ancient puppetry and its hoary milieu.

He is also captivated by O-hisa, with her old-style blackened teeth, delicate poise, and lilting Kyoto politeness - the very antithesis of his modern wife and worlds removed from Hollywood starlets. On Awaji Island with the pair, Kamame marvels at the Old Japan he finds preserved there. He realizes Old Japan will be swept aside by the ceaseless tide of so-called progress, and he recognizes himself as an agent of those very changes, triggering a contradictory jumble of proud regret and sweet despair.

The book ends on uncertainty - will Kamame divorce his wife or not? We are not told. Like his uncertain main character, Tanizaki prefers to avoid directness. The Old Japan so artfully described by Tanizaki, as predicted, may now exist mainly in melancholic accounts like Some Prefer Nettles, but Tanizaki avoids cheap sentimentality. His answer to the problem of progress is every inch the artist's: a sly silence in the midst of beautiful writing. This is a stance which any student of Japanese society and / or great literature will appreciate.

Court Merrigan

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by Kenzo Kitakata

Vertical Inc.

ISBN: 1-9322-3402-0
224 pp

Ashes is a fascinating look at the largely hidden world of the yakuza, Japan's mafia. Divided into two parts, the first half of the novel shows the character Tanaka through a third person narrative, and the second has Tanaka as first person narrator, looking at his surroundings through world-weary eyes.

The kind of man Tanaka appears to be is hinted at in the first 3 lines when he leans across a bar and says, "Lose the jazz". Near the top of his family, 42 years old, and still not quite sure whether he should have chosen this life or not, Ashes is a great character study of a high ranking yakuza.

Tanaka is a man who stubs out cigarettes on himself, watches in delight as he crushes his pet goldfish to death with one hand, and goes through life with an almost constant disdain for others, a man who appears to have truly had enough of yakuza life, but knows no other. The insights into everyday life in the Japanese mafia are fascinating. The younger members are expected to do time in prison, not only for committing crime but also to prove their worthiness (Tanaka has done 8 years by the time he is 42). Tanaka's boss instructs him to start his own gang, separate but still entwined with the main family; Tanaka is furious as this means he is not being considered for promotion. He doesn't really respect his boss although on the surface all is harmonious.

He is the kind of character who takes great pleasure in verbally abusing waiters and bartenders in expensive restaurants for no real reason; he vows to crush anyone who gets in his way like ashes'. He can be fairly sympathetic to some but then switch to being a borderline psychotic, a really unpleasant character. And this is Kitakata's strength he doesn't make us want to like this guy, as on the whole we don't. But he makes him incredibly believable, with that kind of mafia sense of invincibility that the yakuza often have in Japan, whereby they can do as they please and walk over whomever they want. Tanaka takes his frustration out on civilians', as he calls most non-yakuza people, by beating them up in the street. As the boss of the whole family lies gravely ill, his frustrations arise from the in fighting and bickering that occur in the 'family' as he tries to outmaneuver others to become the new boss.

This is a man's world, by and large. Women exist for casual sex and to make money for the mafia. Getting young women hooked on dope, having sex with them and then musing about how much money each of them could make working in his clubs is about as close to intimacy that Tanaka comes.

Ashes is written in a highly effective, punchy style that allows the reader to get into the mind of this complex character, see and hear what he feels, and feel the palpable fear of those that come across him. A great character study, light on action and plot but nevertheless a great insight into a closed world.

David White

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An Artist of the Floating World

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Vintage International

ISBN: 0-679-72266-1
208 pp

In An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro serves up a fascinating look at pre- and postwar Japan. The novel is the story of Masuji Ono, an artist and devotee of the floating world of Japanese nocturnal pleasures.

Prior to the war, however, he was a propagandist for Japan's war effort, and this is in different ways haunting him in the wake of defeat. The war now over, Ono is older and left to reflect on the past and his present. He lost his wife and son in the war, and is now living with one of his daughters. It is a time in which the young blame their elders for the mistakes of the past, and no longer accept the validity of the floating world which was all but destroyed by 1945. What then is there for Ono?

The novel begins three years after Japan's defeat, and Ono is deeply involved in the negotiations of his younger daughter's proposed marriage. In the previous year his other daughter, Noriko, had her planned marriage abruptly cancelled by the groom's family. Ono now begins to wonder whether his artistic support of Japan's war effort is now putting at risk his second daughter's chances.

The most poignant moment in the book revolves around his relationship with Kuroda, his star art pupil, who was betrayed by Ono to the authorities. Ono attempts to justify the years that Kuroda spent in prison by rationalizing that those years now give him credibility in the new Japan.

Ishiguro, who left Nagasaki at age 5 and moved to Britain, evokes a time and place and feeling with a deft and loving touch. An Artist of the Floating World documents the inner life of one man, and portrays the changing cultural attitudes. Whitbread Prize winner Ishiguro was short listed for England's Booker Prize for this work. Ishiguro pulls back layer after layer to reveal memory, or fragments of memory, that have profound meaning. Beautifully written.

C. Ogawa

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Innocent World

by Ami Sakurai

Vertical Inc.

ISBN: 1-9322-3414-4
128 pp

In her first work to be translated into English, Ami Sakurai's Innocent World is a quick peek into every middle class parent's nightmare: incest, casual prostitution, rape, and the utter nihilism of today's bourgeois youth. Part document of the numbed state of teenagers in Tokyo, part manga-like read, this novella is the book for those with an interest in the underbelly of Shibuya youth culture, in particular of how young women are able to divorce their bodies from their minds in pursuit of money - and what they will do for it.

The protagonist of Innocent World, Ami, is Every Young Girl in Tokyo: educated parents who send her to a private school, an absent father, a young woman lacking nothing who is utterly devoid of feeling. The only possible twist is that her older brother is retarded. She discovers that she was the product of fertility treatments that involved a sperm donor not her father (her mother did not want another child with developmental problems, for which she blamed her salaryman husband). This leads Ami in pursuit of Number 307: the man who donated his seed. On the way she prostitutes herself - perhaps out of boredom, perhaps out of resentment - and becomes physically and emotionally involved with her half-brother.

A depressing if insightful read.

C. Ogawa

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Shadow Family

by Miyuki Miyabe

Kodansha International

ISBN: 4-7700-3002-9

Miyuki Miyabe's second book to be translated into English is a compelling police procedural that manages to be quite different in tone to her first English language publication, All She Was Worth. The overwhelming theme running through this book is loneliness. All the protagonists are lonely in some way or another. As a member of the shadow family comments: "We're all lonely. We can't get people in real life to understand who we really are, and we ourselves lose sight of who we really are, and we feel alone. We want to make a connection."

This manages to be both a biting social critique of contemporary Japanese society, showing the loose bonds that tie families together and the lack of communication and intimacy that exists within families, and a skillfully drawn detective story.

It is against this backdrop that Miyabe carefully weaves a tale of murder born from this disparate loneliness. The role of the Internet in modern society takes central place as a group of people, initially unknown to each other, meets online and takes the roles of a family, a 'mom', 'dad' plus son and daughter. Obviously crying out for human contact that they lack in their 'real' lives, in time the boundaries between fiction and reality become blurred and someone is murdered.

The meaning of family and the roles that families play (or don't) in contemporary society are examined with incisive skill, and the superficiality or lack of any real depth in supposedly close relationships between people is highlighted. Although not as good as her other translated book, All She Was Worth, this is still a highly engrossing read.

David White

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by Keigo Higashino

Vertical Inc.

ISBN: 1932234071
282 pp

Heisuke, a regular salaryman, is shattered when he discovers that his wife and daughter (Monami) have been involved in a major bus crash in the mountains.

His wife Naoko is killed, but his young daughter survives. However, when she comes to, something is amiss...her body has been taken over by the soul of her mother.

Heisuke must come to terms with this bizarre situation and pretend to all around that everything in their lives is proceeding as smoothly as possible. Comic touches abound - the adult Naoko trapped in her own daughter's 12-year-old body greets her neighbors in a very adult-like way and addresses her father/husband as "Heisuke", adding to the confusion that arises between the characters.

A rather bizarre relationship ensues in which Heisuke addresses Naoko whilst looking at his daughter's body and young face - in fact, a criticism of the novel is that he appears to do this with such ease that it appears to be forced and unnatural. As Monami begins to develop into an adult and has her first period, it is Naoko his wife who relates this story to Heisuke, talking about the body she is trapped in. Likewise, there are some uncomfortable moments involving bathing and Heisuke's complex feelings as he sees his wife's soul while looking at his daughter's body. He feels jealous when he sees that boys in her school start to take notice of his daughter/wife. Naoko feels that she has a second chance in life, a chance to live all over again, this time in her daughter's body, and begins to study furiously to get into top schools and advance as much as possible through life. There is a subplot involving the overworked bus driver, who desperately needed money so worked all the hours that he could, but ended up killing himself and many passengers through tiredness.

The narrative is easy to read and the main characters are well drawn but the story requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, and with a somewhat anti-climatic ending this novel lacks the punch necessary to feel fully engaged with the characters and their story.

In Japan, Naoko was a best seller and has been made into an acclaimed film. Keigo Higashino was born in a poor ghetto in Osaka. Working as a salaryman, he wrote fiction in his spare time before becoming a full-time writer. He won the prestigious Edogawa Rampo Mystery Award in 1985 for his first work After School. This is his first book to appear in English.

David White

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