Published: January 16th, 2020
Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press
Format: Paperback, Kindle
Genre: Mystery, Psychological Thriller
Today is my stop on the blog tour for this fresh and enticing novel. Thank you to Anne at Random Things Tours for the invitation to take part and to Bitter Lemon Press for the gifted copy of this book.
On a stormy summer day the Aosawas, owners of a prominent local hospital, host a large birthday party. The occasion turns into tragedy when 17 people die from cyanide in their drinks. The only surviving links to what might have happened are a cryptic verse that could be the killer’s, and the physician’s bewitching blind daughter, Hisako, the only person spared injury. But the youth who emerges as the prime suspect commits suicide that October, effectively sealing his guilt while consigning his motives to mystery.
The police are convinced that Hisako had a role in the crime, as are many in the town, including the author of a bestselling book about the murders written a decade after the incident, who was herself a childhood friend of Hisako and witness to the discovery of the murders. The truth is revealed through a skillful juggling of testimony by different voices: family members, witnesses and neighbours, police investigators and of course the mesmerising Hisako herself.
The Aosawa Murders takes the classic elements of the mystery genre but steers away from putting them together in the usual way, instead providing a multi-voiced insight into the psychology of contemporary Japan, with its rituals, pervasive envy and ever so polite hypocrisy. But it’s also about the nature of evil and the resonance and unreliability of memory.
Part Kurasawa’s Rashomon, part Capote’s In Cold Blood.
On a stormy summer’s day in 1973 the house of the prominent Aosawa family is buzzing with auspicious birthday celebrations of three generations. Friends and family fill the rooms and local residents are coming and going throughout the day. But before the day is over the house becomes a grotesque crime scene – bodies contorted into strange positions and the stench of vomit and excrement permeating the air after seventeen people are poisoned by suicide. But the police have no real clues and the two survivors aren’t of much help: the housekeeper is unconscious and Hisako, the only surviving member of the Aosawa family, is blind.
The Aosawa Murders is an exploration of the seemingly motiveless crime, the impact it had on those who survived and the local community. It also delves into the impact of a bestselling book that was written by one of the witnesses a decade later, and tries to finally get to the truth of what happened that dreadful day.
The complex story is told over three decades using various styles and literary devices, each chapter told by a different witness in a very different and distinctive voice. The interviews in particular add to the mysterious atmosphere as we only ever read the responses. This singular novel is written like a work of non-fiction and reads so authentically that I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading fiction rather than a true crime novel.
Though there are an array of characters in the book the primary focus is on two female characters: Hisako Aosawa, the twelve year old who was the only surviving family member, and Makiko Saiga, her friend and later the author of the book about the murders. Rumours have always swirled around Hisako as she was the only person in the house that didn’t take a sip of poison, even after a mentally ill young man committed suicide and left behind a confession and evidence that he committed the crime. Both women are enigmatic characters that stay away from the limelight and have left lasting impressions as a result of the crime that are examined throughout the book.
The Aosawa Murders is a unique, fascinating and riveting novel. The author’s hypnotic imagery and prose made it impossible to put down, even managing to add an element of beauty in the grim, heart-rending torture of the victim’s final moments. Nothing is black and white, but full of shades of grey, the author keeping things ambiguous and cryptic so the reader is always questioning the truth and unsure what to think. Part of the brilliance of this book was that I never managed to quite make up my mind about what had really happened and am still questioning the truth about that fateful day.
I would highly recommend this book, especially if you enjoy true crime novels such as In Cold Blood. It is the author’s first book to be translated into English and I’m hoping her others are translated soon so I can see if they’re as addictive as this one.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Riku Onda, born in 1964, is the professional name of Nanae Kumagai. She has been writing fiction since 1991 and has won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers, the Japan Booksellers’ Award, the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel for The Aosawa Murders, the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize, and the Naoki Prize. Her work has been adapted for film and television. This is her first crime novel and the first time she is translated into English.
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