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IoS book review: The Goddess Chronicle, By Natsuo Kirino (trs Rebecca Copeland)

Priestess of the night – aged five

Natsuo Kirino enters esteemed company with this, the 10th in Canongate's Myth series. Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Philip Pullman and A S Byatt are among those who have previously leant their talents to this catalogue of novels in which ancient legends are re-imagined. But although her name might not be as celebrated as those authors on these shores, Kirino is one of Japan's best-loved writers of crime fiction. And those British readers who do know Kirino for Out, Grotesque or Real World – her three brutal, haunting thrillers available in translation – will discover this to be quite the change of pace.

The Goddess Chronicle retells the legend of Izanami and Izanagi – divine beings who created much of the world before a dramatic falling out – in the voice of a young girl, Namima. The five-year-old lives on a tiny island, Umihebi, at the south-easternmost point of an archipelago; her sister, Kamikuu, is destined to become Umihebi's "oracle", a priestess whose work is central to the well-being of the island's inhabitants. And, as part of the yin-and-yang dichotomy that governs the people, Namima, as Kamikuu's younger sister, is forced to become the isle's priestess of the night: an outcast who must live among the recently deceased to ensure their spirits pass on.

The narrative draws parallels between the defilement, ostracism and revenge of Namima and those of the female goddess Izanami, illuminating the myth's key dichotomies of life and death, love and hate, gods and mankind, and men and women.

Yet there is a dichotomy in Kirino's telling, too. The central narrative is lyrical, with an impelling storyline that demands attention – not to mention one of the finest, and least expected, first lines of a chapter I have ever read. But at the same time, there is a second strand which seems weighed down by the author's reverence for the source material; an almost biblical retelling of the intricacies of the legend that slows the story unnecessarily. There is a tendency, too, towards a nagging repetition of acts already unfurled, as if Kirino expects us to forget, in the space of a chapter, what has already occurred.

But it would be wrong to end on a negative note, for in the main this is a compelling tale, with foundations in an allegory-rich fable that more than deserves its rejuvenation.