Sumi is what’s known as a “forgotten party” in Japan – a person whose life was directly affected by a crime, but who is kept away from the details of trial, punishment, etc. In Sumi’s case, the crime is the murder of her mother. She has grown up with her grandfather, and for twenty years believes that her mother died in a car accident. An unexpected phone call leads her to the truth, and the unraveling of both an old story, and of the lies that have made up the fabric of her life.
I’m honestly not sure what to think about this book. It’s FAR out of my comfort zone. I’m not generally prone to reading slow, languorous books heavy on setting, poetic language, and literary themes. I tend to prefer my literary books in classics form. A couple places online describe this one as a “mystery” or “thriller,” but these descriptions couldn’t be further from the truth. Make no mistake: this one is a ponderous, character-driven story with very little plot. This isn’t a bad thing, and it is written with some of the most beautiful language I’ve ever read, but you shouldn’t go into it thinking that it’ll be something gripping or quick or thrilling.
I think my favorite thing about the book was the look at Japanese culture. There is so much about the way the law, justice, prisons, businesses, marriage, divorce, education, and other systems work. My knowledge about Japan is limited, and I know absolutely nothing about many of these areas. It was exploring an entirely new world for me. Every night, I would pick up the book and read another chapter or three before bed, the full book spreading out over several weeks. Every night, there would be something new to learn.
On the reverse side, I ended the book feeling dissatisfied. The “climax” of sorts didn’t work for me. Whereas the psychology through so much of the story was spot-on, I didn’t really buy the motivation behind Sumi’s mother’s murder. It felt…off. I kept expecting to discover some twist or misdirect. Not because the book was advertised as a thriller/mystery – I’d long before realized this was a purely literary novel – but because certain details seemed to be missing in Sumi’s research, and the motivation just made no sense. The book’s afterword says that this story originated in a true crime, and I wonder if perhaps the disconnect came from changing so many details, but not others. I don’t know.
All I know is that by the end, I wasn’t sure why I read the book. Sure, it was lovely as a reading experience, all those beautiful phrases that were pure poetry. And it was fun to learn so much about Japan. Plus I loved the experience of reading just a little bit each night before bed, instead of rushing through the book. I just don’t know if those things make up for what felt, in the end, like an incomplete or missing story. Like taking a bite of a food that tastes lovely, but which disappears before you can swallow. I imagine that my feelings on the book will ultimately be determined by how long it lingers, whether it percolates and takes root deep inside me, or disappears from my imagination as if I never read it at all.