The 18th book I’ve read for the 2010 Global Reading Challenge completes the Asian leg of my virtual tour, being set in contemporary Japan. Three books to go before I will be able to officially say I am an extreme global reader.
When Yoshino Ishibashi is found murdered near the eerie Mitsue Pass in southern Japan, a road locals only take in desperation to avoid expensive tolls on the nearby freeways, Police at first suspect a college student she knew who has also disappeared. But attention is also focused on Yuichi Shimizu, a construction worker from a nearby town.
Rather than being a whodunnit, Villain is an exploration of what makes a murderer and seen in that light it is fascinating. Any focus on the investigation of Yoshino’s murder is incidental to the author’s exploration of changes in modern Japanese society and associated issues of alienation, loneliness and despair. In short chapters, some told in flashback, we meet a wide range of people from different geographical and social backgrounds who all have some connection, albeit tenuous in some instances, to Yoshino or her murderer. We start by meeting Yoshino, a not-very-good insurance saleswoman by day and amateur prostitute with a gift for fantasy by night and move on from there. We then meet her parents, devastated and almost physically immobilised by her death and what they learn about her life, the two friends who were with her on the night of her murder, the college student and the construction worker who are both suspects in her murder, their friends and families and so on.
The person we learn most about is Yuichi, an almost allegorical character who experiences most of life’s disappointments in a very short space of time. Abandoned by his mother at a young age he is at the beck and call of his ailing grandparents and seems to have no interests other than his car and his fairly disastrous attempts at a love life (virtually all of which involve payment of some kind). In that respect he is not alone as none of the young people in the book seem capable of engaging in anything remotely like a ‘normal’ social life, what little social activity exists is conducted out via emails and furtive visits to love hotels, though I don’t know enough about life in Japan to know if this is a realistic portrayal of life for twenty-something Japanese people or beefed up for storytelling purposes.
For the most part the writing is very good and the translation by Philip Gabriel makes it easy to forget the words originated in another language but I must admit to finding the some of the ‘hyper-realism’ a bit off-putting as it tended to take me out of the story. The most obvious example of this is the inclusion of the price of every service and product mentioned which made me feel like I should have a calculator by my side or a shopping list on the go and I’m not really sure what purpose it all served.
For its first two thirds Villain is pretty bleak but towards the end there are glimmers of hope in which an unexpected person or two displays a hint of humanity and some of the characters, though none of the younger ones, show a bit of backbone. However the overwhelming feeling I’m left with is sadness as I think about these difficult to forget characters. If you can handle a slow-paced thoughtful novel that might leave you feeling uneasy about the state of the world then I would highly recommend Villain.
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I would also recommend that you ignore most of the publicity material about this novel, much of which is either woefully inaccurate (the blurb on my copy for example claims that one of the characters is arrested for Yoshino’s murder early on which is just not true) or gives away too many spoilers. Also the US cover has a stylized gun on the cover which couldn’t have less to do with the story if it went out of its way to be irrelevant. I can only assume that no one responsible for publicising this book has actually read it.
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My rating 4/5
Translator Philip Gabriel
Publisher Harvill Secker [2010, originally 2007]
Length 295 pages
Format trade paperback
Source I bought it