4. A book written in East Asia: Penance by Kanae Minato
List Progress: 2/30
TW: Murder, sexual assault
Trauma, especially trauma experienced by a child, leaves a mark. Japanese author Kanae Minato’s second novel, Penance, has five different narrators who have been deeply marked and marred by the murder of a child fifteen years before. Each of them has processed their grief, fear and rage in different ways, but none of them have escaped unscathed. Minato is incredibly skilled at showing the effects of pain over time, and while this novel is a bit lacking compared to her debut, Confessions, the visceral depiction of the ripple effects of trauma is well worth the time.
Ten year old Emily Adachi is lured away from her friends and murdered by a strange man. Her four friends Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuka all are questioned as witnesses, but none of them can describe the man’s face. Emily’s mother lashes out and blames the girls for the tragedy, and fifteen years later, right before the statute of limitations for the murder is reached, each of them reaches out to her with the story of what their life has looked like since that day. It is a great central conceit, and a brilliant way to add layers and different perspectives to the crime with each new narrator. But separating the sections so discreetly also has its downsides: the stories become somewhat repetitive after enough iterations, and the chapters vary in quality. I found the first three stories much more engaging, most likely because they were more self-contained. When the novel has to bring everything together in the last two, the seams start to show and the inconsistencies become more apparent.
Penance is not for the faint of heart, with detailed descriptions of murder and sexual assault, and the idea of spending a whole novel unpacking childhood trauma will surely turn off some readers. But the prose moves fast and the stories are exciting, so the audience is propelled forward through even the darkest moments. The ending might not be the strongest, and this book will always live in the shadow of Confessions, but it is quite engaging all on its own.
Would I Recommend It: Yes.