Penance by Kanae Minato

Ever since reading her gripping first novel, Confessions, I’ve kept Kanae Minato on my growing watchlist of Japanese authors. Hailed in Japan as the Queen of ‘Iyamisu’, a subgenre of mystery fiction that delves into the sinister side of human nature, Minato’s darkly woven tale of a mother seeking vengeance after the murder of her young child was one of the most surprising and original books I read last year. In her latest translated work Penance (Shokuzai in Japan), Minato presents us with a similar mystery, but this time instead of focusing on the motivations behind the murder, she follows the devastating ripple effect that shapes the lives of those left behind.

On a hot August day, in an unnamed country town renowned only for its ‘sparkling clean air’, a group of young girls playing ball in an empty school yard is approached by a stranger claiming to be a maintenance man. He lures one of them into accompanying him to the changing rooms where hours later, her dead body is discovered. Furious with the four remaining girls’ inability to accurately remember the stranger, the grieving mother lays the blame at their feet, and she demands that they find the murderer themselves or perform an act of penance to atone for her daughter’s death. She threatens to take her revenge on each of them if they failed to do either of these things before the statute of limitations is up.  The story follows the girls, now young women, as they each tell their story and recount their version of what happened on that tragic day. As the deadline for the statute of limitations draws near, each of them reflect on their troubled lives and the promise made to them by a grieving mother.

Like Confessions, the story is told from multiple viewpoints; the first four chapters focus separately on the four surviving girls, each giving their own account of the events leading up to the grisly discovery in the school changing rooms. As we go more in depth with the girls as adults and find out just how far the effects of childhood trauma go, the identity of the murderer begins to take form in each of their individual narratives, resulting in a chilling reveal.

There’s a certain degree of…discomfort I expect when it comes to reading psychological thrillers penned by Japanese authors. Kanae Minato doesn’t shy away from presenting the more disturbing elements of the story, but it’s done in a restrained, almost detached manner that leaves you unnerved, even long after you’ve finished the book.

I’m glad I didn’t have to wait too long for the translated edition of Penance, though with an impressive body of work already under her belt, I’m surprised that this is only Minato’s second book to be released in English. C’mon, Publishing Powers that Be, what’s taking so long?

By the way, there’s a 2012 mini-series adaptation as well. I don’t think this particular trailer does it justice, but it’s the only one I can find with English subtitles.

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