This engrossing novel begins with the murders of two Tokyo prostitutes who had been at an expensive school in one of Japan's training grounds for the elite. How did they come to be among the lowest of the low, plying their trade in the city's devastating slums? The intertwined stories of the victims and their killer hold mirrors up to the ugly face of Japanese society, seen from multiple view-points in a structure resembling Kurosawa's film version of Rashomon.
The principal narrator is the sister of the beautiful Yuriko Hirata, so preternaturally lovely she is a kind of monster, from a mixed Swiss-Japanese family. Their father is a brute, the grandfather in love with a totally unsuitable bar-owner. As for the two daughters, they are locked in a bitter rivalry. Their childhood is spent struggling through a system so competitive that a girl who doesn't wear genuine Ralph Lauren socks to school is jeered at, and modern Japan's relentless drive for success forms a similar pattern for the rest of their lives. Social pretences must be maintained, though a family is so grasping that the father demands repayment of the cost of a phone call in which his daughter's schoolfriend learns of her mother's death. The old Japan, meantime, is fast disappearing, as symbolised by the grandfather's bonsai trees, sold off to buy the bar-owner's favours.
Into this vicious world comes a Chinese labourer, Zhang, emerging from a peasant society of random cruelty, who has seen his sister die in their desperate attempt to reach Japan. We learn early that Zhang is found guilty of the murder of Yuriko: but did he kill both girls, and what fuelled his murderous instincts?
Beneath this story lie deeper questions: of what drives women to prostitution, of the relationship between the individual and society, as well as unexpected philosophical considerations such as an examination of the sense of self, perhaps paradoxically heightened by being trapped in rigid social conformity. Above all, the book is an exploration of the roles of women in such a hot-house world and of the men who rule it. "In order to induce the process of decay, water is necessary. I think that, in the case of women, men are the water," says the ugly sister, leading her own secret life.
This is a rich, complex read. Be prepared for a book utterly unlike anything we are used to in crime fiction: a long, densely-written work that resembles a Russian novel more than anything else. The Hirata sisters are not-too-distant cousins of the Brothers Karamazov.
Jane Jakeman's novel 'In the Kingdom of Mists' is published by Black Swan
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