Bitter Lemon Press, 346 pages, $14.95 (c2005, UK ed. 2020)
Translated by Alison Watts
I’d like to label this yet another postmodernist book about which I cannot write a review. But here’s a review anyway.
Should you read this book, read it twice or take notes. Author Riku Onda defies convention whenever possible.
In an unnamed Japanese city, the Aosawa family is throwing a party to celebrate some family birthdays. Friends and neighbors are invited. It should be a Big Event. Hours later ambulances and police arrive to find seventeen people dead of cyanide poisoning. There are two survivors: a housekeeper who drank some of the poison but managed to pull through in the hospital and the family's blind teenage daughter who did not drink the poison-laced beverages.
Although they are not main characters, two police detectives appear off and on in the story, mainly to express their bafflement. The family appears to have had no enmity or rancor directed toward them. The father was a doctor in a long line of doctors who served the community; the mother was a doer of good deeds at the local orphanage. The blind daughter was an exemplary student and role model to other children.
Shortly after, a young man killed himself and left a suicide note confessing to the killings. Almost no one involved in the case believed he actually was the primary party.
Ten years later, Makiko Saiga, a neighbor of the family, who was eleven or twelve at the time, wrote a book, “The Forgotten Festival,” about the murders. She meticulously researched it and interviewed many people involved in the case.
Thirty years after the murders, someone – an unnamed narrator – is poking around in the case again.
“The Aosawa Murders” jumps around in time, from narrator to narrator, first person to third person. It seems to have no structure. But, aha! There are hints and insights each chapter adds to the Big Picture. In the end, is it all enough to present a coherent story? And often, it turns out, the narrator is unreliable or has an underlying motive or prejudice.
How can one trust a detective who immediately knows, without evidence, who the killer is? How can a person who is envious or one in thrall or one lost in innocence provide an impartial presentation of the murders?
There are lots of sensory descriptions. There is Weather. The city is humid, the air is heavy, the torrents of rain startle and menace the people. It is hot. (If you seek immersion, read this book in the summer!)
When you are done piecing together the testimonies and judging which are reliable, will you have an answer to who the murderer is or why the people had to die? Also, you are not reading solely to solve the murders but also to understand the narrators.
This was very much worth reading, but I would not like to read many more of this type in a row, although I inadvertently seem to have done so three times now.