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confessions200Written by Kanae Minato, translated by Stephen Snyder – You never quite know what to expect when you pick up a Japanese crime fiction novel. There is no theme or style that dominates, so you might get a methodical police procedural, or a twisted psychological thriller. Each gives a different view of Japan – one that you may not be familiar with.

Yuko Moriguchi is that single mother, living in the shadow of her famous ex-lover. She gets by teaching, earning the respect of 13- and 14-year-olds finding their feet in junior high. When her young daughter Manami is found floating dead in the school swimming pool, Yuko knows who was responsible. She knows that it was no accident, and she knows that her daughter’s murderers will get off lightly if she allows them to be punished by conventional means. So Yuko designs her own punishment, especially tailored to the two young murderers.

Confessions is told through a series of monologues – speeches, diary entries, letters – that tell of the unfolding of Yuko’s cruel psychological punishment. As you read, you’ll piece the story together and come to understand the calm and calculated way in which both criminal and victim think, and also just how apt Yuko’s choice of punishment is.

Thanks to this translation, we get to understand the psyches of characters from an entirely different culture, with different experiences and values. We might have no idea what it’s like to be a working mother in rural Japan, or a junior high student dealing with bullying, or the mother of a hikikomori – a child who refuses to leave their room – but thanks to Confessions much is revealed.

A sensation when it debuted in 2008, sending the 33-year-old housewife who wrote it to the top of the mystery charts in Japan, Confessions was later made into a movie, which was nominated for the 2011 Best Foreign Language Oscar. The film didn’t win, but it’s hard to imagine it matching the book with its internal monologues and insight into the characters of both Yuko and the students.

It is among the lesser characters – the ones who don’t get the chance to present a confession – where the novel is lacking. Characters like Manami’s father, the teacher who replaces Yuko, and the mother of one of the murderers – they don’t get the chance to rise above the level of caricature. Many of these players are over the top, and although they are essential to the plot, they aren’t given enough depth or explanation to really add to it.

This was the author’s debut and there are some inconsistencies in the plotting too – particularly in its continuity. Three times a character refers to an event that is yet to occur. Because of the ambitious, overlapping plotlines in Confessions, she may have lost track of events. However, these are minor issues, distractions in what is an otherwise intriguing and original debut. Minato has been pumping out bestsellers at the rate of almost two a year since Confessions, remaining popular with Japanese readers. It’s good to see that her brand of twisted yet intriguingly readable mysteries is finally reaching English readers.

Mulholland Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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