Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda (Japanese Literature Challenge 16)

I must admit to feeling equivocated about this book. I loved the cover, as if that matters, and the concept of two people struggling over the course of one night to discover why their guide died during a mountain trek they had taken. They each suspect the other of murder, as neither was in the other’s line of sight when he fell to his death.

But, it took me almost a week to read 204 pages because I just couldn’t engage with it.

Actually, the story ended up being more about these two, Aki and Hiro, than about the death of their guide. We don’t even know how he died, exactly, other than Aki’s suppositions at the end. What we are embroiled in is the relationship between Aki and Hiro, their combined memories, and what they mean to each other.

It was a little confusing, at first, as they both speak in the first person, and I wondered who it was that was telling me their perspective. The chapters alternate between each voice, so after awhile it became clearer. But, as far as Japanese literature goes, and especially a book from Riku Onda, I felt it far from thrilling.

I am going on now to The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd, which won the Akutagawa Prize.

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda (a most excellent beginning to the Japanese Literature Challenge 13)

I can’t help feeling there’s something inexplicable about this crime. I don’t know how to express it precisely, but there’s something incoherent or indefinable about it, something the human mind isn’t equipped to engage with. (p. 63)

How I love an intriguing mystery, a well written, well developed story that has not been manipulated for “twists and turns” but naturally unfolds it’s layers as a flower unfurls its petals. You can trust a Japanese author to do just that, and Riku Onda does it magnificently in her novel, The Aosawa Murders, which won the 59th Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel.

The story is told from multiple perspectives, beginning with a police interview conducted with Hisako Aoswara which only gives the barest glimpse into her account. Gradually we become aware of a certain crepe myrtle tree, a blue room, and a strange letter left under a vase for a single flower at the scene of the crime. The fact that Hisako is blind only serves to obfuscate her side of the story.

What becomes clear Is that seventeen people have died by drinking poisoned soft drinks or sake at a birthday party for Dr. Aosawa and his family. The drinks were brought and left by a messenger wearing a black hat and a yellow raincoat. Only one person in the family has survived: the beautiful young daughter who is blind, Hisako.

One by one we read the perspectives of the people who can give their account of what has happened. First, is a conversation with Makiko Saiga, the author of the book Forgotten Festival, which gives her side of the story as she was a neighbor Hisako’s age when the murder occurred. Then, we have the point of view of her assistant who points out a few discrepancies in Makiko’s book.There is an excerpt from Forgotten Festival, an interview with the housekeeper’s daughter, and the detective’s thoughts himself. From these testimonies, and several others, the truth is gradually revealed.

But, what is truth? How can any of us know what another’s experience has been? Consider this quote from the author’s assistant:

I hope you understand that truth is nothing more than one view of a subject seen from a particular perspective. (p. 59)

It was fascinating to read each account, to gain an understanding of what really happened as each piece was laid in place. It was a puzzle which was solved by seemingly unrelated pieces which fit together perfectly once they were laid down. I was surprised when all was known, but then again, I have never been a child in the blue room with a white crepe myrtle flower in full bloom.

About the author: Ricky Onda, born in. 1964, is the professional name of Nanao Kumagai. She has been writing fiction since 1991 and has published prolifically since. She has won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers, the Japan Booksellers’ Award, the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize and the Naoki Prize. Her work has been adapted for film and television. The Aosawa Murders won the prestigious Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel. It is Riku Onda’s first crime novel and her first work translated into English.

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda will be published in the U.S. by Bitter Lemon Press on February 15, 2020. But, I will send my copy to a participant of the Japanese Literature Challenge, U.S. only please. Simply leave a comment below, and I will draw a winner a week from today.

The winner of The Aosawa Murders is Nadia of A Bookish Way of Life. Thank you to all who commented here.