Killing Daniel

Written by Sarah Dobbs — This book starts off with a bang – one of the most gripping opening chapters I’ve read in a while. It captures perfectly that sense of nightmare-ish unease and fear which the two main protagonists experience throughout the book. Dark, overcast, the sensation of drowning permeates the whole book, not just the first chapter.

Fleur, from a dysfunctional family in Manchester, befriends Chinatsu, the cosseted only daughter of Japanese expats, for a brief period in secondary school. Despite their different backgrounds and difficulties in communicating in English, they establish a common language and share each other’s deepest secrets and fears. As their adolescent lives become more and more difficult, they dream of running away together. However, life pulls them apart.

There is also the matter of the sudden death of Daniel: the only boy who ever showed any kindness to Fleur. He drowned in the lake in the woods. She thought her mother’s boyfriend at the time might have been the murderer, but she was too frightened and confused to be a credible witness as far as the police were concerned. Ever since, Fleur has been haunted by nightmares of Daniel drowning.

Over the next decade or two, the lives of the two women evolve in oddly parallel ways, despite the glaring differences in material wealth and the thousands of miles separating them. Fleur is stuck with an abusive partner and seems to have given up on her life. Chinatsu feels equally imprisoned in an arranged marriage with the rather creepy Yugi. In her desperate desire to conceive, Chinatsu embarks on an affair with Chinese businessman Tao. She also begins to suspect that her husband may be involved in the rape and murder of prostitutes. She runs away to London with her lover, hoping that she will find her long-lost childhood friend. But her jealous husband follows close behind.

Despite the initial set-up, this book is not conventional crime fiction. It does have thriller elements to it and a churning feeling that it will all end badly. There is pace and foreboding, building up to a violent climax towards the end. In essence, however, it is about men hiding deadly secrets, women who at first glance seem complacent in their downtrodden states, and the difficulties of letting anyone get close to you, even when you love them. Add to that themes of child abuse, sadism and mistreating prostitutes, and you have all the makings of a profoundly disquieting book. However, ultimately, these two women find each other and are redeemed by the power of love and female friendship.

I found it a troubling read: certainly no cosy crime or escapist literature. There is a strong literary style in the descriptions and characterisations, although it never feels like it is impinging upon the action. The descriptions of the scenes taking place in Japan give a sense of alienation very reminiscent of Natuso Kirino. There are also some lighter moments. Fleur’s grandmother is a robust creation – loyal, straight-talking, smoking her roll-ups, trying to stop her granddaughter from repeating the mistakes of her mother. Both she and Fleur are humorously presented in a fine scene in hospital when Fleur awakens after her coma with a mild case of Tourette’s. The cultural observations about English men and women (from the East Asian perspective) are also accurately and amusingly rendered.

A gritty, unusual thriller that will appeal to fans of both literary fiction and Japanese noir. I hope that Sarah Dobbs will continue to write in this vein. Killing Daniel is released on 5 November.

Unthank Books
Print/Kindle/iBook

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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