International Crime Fiction Pick: PENANCE by Kanae Minato

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

9780316349154Kanae Minato’s second crime novel, Penance, already a popular mystery-turned-TV-series in Japan, was published early this year in US markets; from the first page Penance plunges the reader into a profoundly disturbing tale of murder, consequences, and retribution. After schoolgirls Sae, Akiko, Maki, and Yuko witness the murder of classmate Emily, they fail to accurately describe the murderer. Years later, with Emily’s killer still on the loose, the victim’s mother curses them with a need to seek penance for their failure if the murderer is not caught within 15 years, or the statue of limitations for murder in Japan.

As the deadline approaches, each woman reaches out to the victim’s mother with their own complex and suspenseful tales of atoning for their classmate’s demise. Each adds additional details of the murder, in a Rashoman-like series of overlapping and contradictory accounts, to what slowly builds to a gothic twist. Like the status-conscious novels of the 19th century and the wicked works of the 1950s, Kanae Minato’s Penance takes a look at the toxic consequences of obsession with status and guilt for those sins which belong to others, or which are not at all sins.

The women’s stories are presented in a variety of forms, showcasing the author’s versatility in the form and in her character development – a letter is followed by the transcript from a controversial PTA meeting; one woman’s story is presented as her confused recollections given to a therapist, while the fourth woman tells her version of the tale to hospital staff as she gives birth.

Sae’s identity is submerged by her husband into that of a doll, her acceptance of womanhood halted forever by her fear of the dangers maturity brings. The reclusive Akiko views herself as a bear, big and strong, cutting herself off from the appreciation of delicate objects after she ruins a ruffled blouse the day of the murder, and finally achieves her chance to protect the cute and delicate from harm years later when her brother’s adopted child is in danger.

Maki forces herself to enter an occupation she despises as self-punishment for her failure to save her classmate, only to find an opportunity to defend her students against a violent intruder on school grounds later on, while Yuko is inspired by the murder to begin shoplifting, her covetous gaze a theme throughout her encounters with the murdered girl. She covets everything from Emily’s family to small objects in shops; she envies the attention given to her sickly sister, and desires her sister’s policeman husband.

An AV Club review of the TV series based on the novel described the set-up as “pitched partway between folktale and cold-case procedural,” a fitting description for the original novel. Children are metaphorically devoured by their elders, while some characters experience symbolic metamorphosis into animals, objects, or each other. Fairytale monsters (in the form of a variety of damaged men) endanger others, and the women in the story must summon all their strength to protect themselves and others.

Yet Penance is also a modern tale of obsession, status anxiety, alienation, and covetous behavior. Coveting that which others possess drives not only the fourth woman’s desires, but in effect, the entire novel. Characters’ concern for their own reputations, and their jealousy of others’ status and possessions, directly result in most of the novel’s emotional and physical violence.

Hidden pregnancies, loveless marriages, fear of desirability, and fear of loss of status – each character either fears to covet or to be coveted. Some try to impose their own desires on others in the way they want, not in the ways their objects of desire wish to be valued; others run into trouble by accepting the desires of others without questioning them until they find themselves sublimating their entire identities to the desires of others.

Every character is defined by what they want but cannot have, or by what they deserve but will not allow themselves to possess – Emily is named for her grandfather’s lost love, Yuko wants the attention paid to her sister; Akiko denies herself the right to be girly; Maki forces herself to work at a job she hates; Emily’s mother (in flashbacks) will not allow herself to date the boys she likes, instead romancing a boy desired by her best friend; and Sae clings to the innocence of childhood, convinced that it was Emily’s physical maturity in comparison to her peers, not childlike vulnerablity, that allowed her to be a target of the strange man who caused her death.

Immediately after finishing up Penance, I ordered in a copy of Minato’s best-selling first novel, Confessions, a psychological thriller known as the Gone Girl of Japan (despite its publication years earlier). You can read Steph Cha’s compelling review of Confessions for the LA Times here for a better idea of the disturbing depths Minato gleefully explores. According to various reviewers, Kanae is known in Japan as the “queen of iyamisu”, or “eww mysteries,” a new subgenre of mystery celebrating the grotesque and visceral.

Both Confessions and Penance explore the vengeance of mothers and the cruelty of children. Both celebrate female psychosis in a way normally reserved for horror films, and in a way reminiscent of Natsuo Kirino’s chilling tales Out and Grotesque. Those looking for the disturbing, the complex, and the utterly compelling, look no further.

Penance is Japanese crime fiction at its most disturbingly meta – identities shift and change, characters slough off large portions of their self in order to atone for another’s acts, and the fresh mountain air of the small village where the attack took place serves as metaphor for the problems inevitably caused by human nature, no matter how quaint, rural and pristine the setting may be.

You can find copies of Penance on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

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