Translated by Stephen Snyder
Mulholland Books/Hodder, €13.40, ebook €6.49
Review: Tony Clayton-Lea
First published in Japan in 2008 to instant acclaim and best seller status (three million copies and counting), and then adapted into a film that was selected as Japan’s entry for Best Foreign Language film in the 2010 Oscars, Confessions is not for the faint of heart. It is gripping, it is scary, it is a book you wish you could read any other time but now.
It opens with a classroom scenario: middle-school science teacher Yuko Moriguchi announces her retirement to her suddenly attentive class of young teenagers. There is a valid reason, she feels, to announce her departure not just from this particular school but from teaching altogether. As the first 20 or so pages pass by in eerily detached and precise prose, we learn that Moriguchi has much need to reflect on her life and her future. Until recently, she was a single mother to a four-year-old daughter, Manami, the result of a now splintered relationship with the child’s HIV-positive father.
Balancing the demands of her job with the needs of her child, Moriguchi occasionally brings Manami to school, but tragedy occurs when Manami drowns in an apparent accident at the school swimming pool. Life goes from bad to worse, however, when Moriguchi discovers that her daughter’s death wasn’t an accident at all. She was, in fact, murdered. And so begins Kanae Minato’s compelling tale of revenge.
To say it’s revenge with slow release is an understatement, and while it’s understandable (if not easy) to guardedly cheer on a woman seeking her own kind of justice on behalf of her murdered child, it is, perhaps, more difficult to allow ourselves to accept such action when the targets of Moriguchi’s vengeful pursuit are children themselves — two 13-year-old boys in her class. There is no small uneasiness on the reader’s part here, then, and it is to the author’s credit that such a feeling has a poetic, if conflicted, logic to it. This is shaken somewhat when we learn that Moriguchi has no problem slicing moral boundaries to suit her appetite, not only for the teenage killers but also classmates, family, and other hapless characters who are lashed by her unchecked tailspin of hurt, anger and torment.
Minato touches on a few crucial points in her revenge narrative; the first is parental responsibility. “Manami died,” admits Moriguchi, “because I was supposed to be looking out for her and I wasn’t vigilant enough.”
The second pivotal point is the notion of criminal responsibility. Japan’s legal age of criminal responsibility is 14, which means that young offenders, even killers, serve sentences tailored to their age. When they are released back into society, they lead full lives with their identities hidden, their futures ostensibly open and bright. “When a child commits this sort of crime,” ponders Moriguchi, “isn’t it the responsibility of the adult world to handle it as discreetly as possible and to make the criminal understand its seriousness in no uncertain terms?”
Unfolding across six chapters narrated by different characters, all of which speak in the first person under various narrative conceits (including Moriguchi’s implacable retirement speech, a letter, a diary entry, a website proclamation), Confessions starts as mildly diverting, proceeds along lines that you think you recognise, and then hurtles into a pulse-stopping story of justice, righteousness and morality.
And then, just when you think you can handle no more, adds violent twists and turns that make you put down the book for several seconds before you are able to start reading again.
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