February Reading: A Season of Grimness

I was offline for a couple of days and gathering my lists and reviews for February, when I realised that this short, dark month has provided me with quite a lot of grim reading. Not ‘grim’ in terms of the quality of the writing, since pretty much all of them have been very well written indeed. But the subject matter(s) has/have been relentless: child abductions, abuse, alcoholism, serial killers, cannibalism, mental illness, highly dysfunctional families, discrimination against immigrants… and an astronaut stranded on Mars.

Still, I managed to read 16 books this month, which is very good going, although I have fallen far behind in my reviewing.

1 Book Each in German and French:

Irena Brežná: Die undankbare Fremde

Delphine de Vigan: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit – will be part of a larger post on mothers in fiction

5 Translated Books (and therefore worth knowing the translators’ names)

Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noël Balen: Nightmare in Burgundy, transl. Sally Pane (to be reviewed soon on CFL)

Pascal Garnier: The Front Seat Passenger (to be reviewed), transl. Jane Aitken

Shuichi Yoshida: Parade, transl. Philip Gabriel

Parade

Promising set-up: four young people who share a flat and seem to have nothing in common. Each is slightly off-kilter, dysfunctional, but not in a very obvious way. As a picture of disaffected youth, of the anonymity of city living, of friendships of the ‘chatroom type’ (even when people are living together) and of the darker side to Japanese society, it works perfectly. As a crime novel or even psychological thriller with a coherent story arc, it does not.

Pierre Lemaitre: Irène (to be reviewed), transl. Frank Wynne

Jung-Myung Lee: The Investigation (to be reviewed), transl. Chi-Young Kim

1 Non-Crime Book (More Science than Science Fiction)

Andy Weir: The Martian

Martian

Surprisingly technical, with a high level of scientific precision (and yet manages to keep it thrilling throughout). It really would make an excellent film. Lovely sense of humour of the main protagonist, plus a lot of the politics of NASA, the US and even China, keeps this lively.  Ultimately, however, this one felt just a bit too geeky to me. It didn’t have enough of the human/psychological elements to it.

4 Books from Crime Fiction Series

Elly Griffiths: The Outcast Dead (Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist)

Denise Mina: The Red Road (detective Alex Morrow)

Donna Leon: By Its Cover (Commissario Brunetti) – to be reviewed

Nicci French: Waiting for Wednesday (psychotherapist Frieda Klein)

NicciFrench

I might have known that Nicci French would not do a conventional crime fiction series. Don’t expect a police procedural (although police are involved) and don’t expect a self-contained story, as so many recurrent characters reappear and so many allusions are made to events in the previous two books. Yes, there is a distinct murder, plus an intriguing trail which could mean several more murders, but this is all much more about loss and bereavement, trauma and its psychological consequences.

4 Standalone Crime Novels (although at least 2 of them really stretch the boundaries of crime)

Lucie Whitehouse: Before We Met

Natalie Young: Season to Taste

Paula Daly: Just What Kind of Mother Are You? – will feature in my ‘mothering’ post

Koren Zailckas: Mother Mother – will feature in my ‘mothering’ post

So many fantastic books this month, not a single turkey. A few frightened or even repelled me (The Red Road, Season to Taste, Mother Mother, Irène), most of them saddened me (even Donna Leon and the winemaker series were not so cosy this time round), so it was hard to choose my favourite. In the end, I opted for The Investigation, because it combines so many of my favourite things: poetry and mystery, Japanese history and the triumph of beauty and art over the most inhumane conditions.

I’m linking this to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme organised by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

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January in Japan: Villain by Shuichi Yoshida

Just about time to squeeze in one more Japanese writer for Tony’s January in Japan challenge. Although it does feel at times like Tony is reading the classics, while I am just reading the sensationalist crime fiction…

The Bestsellerish Cover - like a million others.
The Bestsellerish Cover – like a million others.

What is interesting about Japanese crime fiction though is that it doesn’t follow the conventions of the genre, or at least not of the police procedurals we are used to. The focus is less on detecting the perpetrator of the crime, than on the events leading up to the crime and its aftermath. However, they are not quite psychological thrillers either. We gain a little insight into the thoughts and feelings of some of the main characters (and there is usually more than one point of view in Japanese novels), but the motivations for some of their most extreme actions remain shadowy. Can we ever truly know what makes a person do certain things? [Japanese authors seem to ask.] This lack of clear-cut answers, this deliberate ambiguity, is what fascinates me about Japanese literature, but it can have mixed results in the crime fiction genre.

So the plot is not the main point here, but here is a quick summary of it anyway. A woman is found strangled on a remote mountain pass (often associated with ghost sightings). It turns out that the young woman, Yoshino, has a secret online dating life, to counteract her boring job as an insurance saleswoman. She also claims to be going out with a popular and rich college student; in fact, she has almost started believing her own lies. But is it her slightly dangerous hidden lifestyle or her fantasies which led to her death? We might be able to guess fairly early on who the killer is, but there are a few surprises along the way, including a Bonnie and Clyde moment.

More interesting cover - which do you prefer?
More interesting cover – which do you prefer?

The book starts very slowly, with a rather dull description of the Mitsuse pass and the motorway passing through the region. But stick with it, because it does get better, although never as pacy as a Western thriller. What is most interesting about the book is the realistic, if rather depressing ‘slice of contemporary Japanese life’ on offer. We have here the collective portrait of lonely young people, stuck in dead-end jobs, unable to express their emotions, living in anonymous industrial towns with grey convenience stores and dingy love hotels. In this respect, the multiple points of view work well, as together they build up the picture of what feels like a lost generation.

Why so many glum books from Japan? Well, I think because Japanese society is still very much about maintaining a façade and about fitting in. It’s almost a cliché but the distinction between ‘honne’ (your true feelings and inner core) and ‘tatemae’ (the public face) is still alive and well. Rebellion and eccentricity, when they come, are more extreme (think Swinging Sixties but on an individual or small-group scale). Alienation is more depressing and there are fewer opportunities to meet like-minded people (although there seem to be plenty of them in the literature).

So perhaps I wouldn’t recommend this to a die-hard crime fiction fan, but to someone who wants a subtle exploration of family breakdown, ageing, alienation and rather desolate provincial life in a stagnating Japan, I would say: ‘Welcome to Anomie Central!’

For an excellent review of this novel and picture of the Mitsuse Pass, please go to the wonderful blog by Dolce Bellezza.