Saturday, 29 October 2016

Eighteenth Summer

十八の夏 (Juuhachi no natsu, Eighteenth Summer, 2002) by 光原百合 (MITSUHARA Yuri, born 1964) is a hard book to classify. The title story won the Mystery Writers of Japan award in 2002 and a translation by Beth Carey was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in December 2004; but it is certainly not a conventional mystery. Some of the stories feature crimes, including murder; but all of them are also being pulled the whole time towards the romantic or cosily sentimental. In the best of the stories, this creates a tension in the reader, as they try to work out just how sinister the story is (with the possibility that the answer is "not sinister at all, actually").

The title story is the best example of what I mean. The main character is a school leaver studying to retake his university entrance exams (a common occurrence in Japan). He strikes up acquaintance with a young woman he has seen sketching by the river where he jogs, a freelance illustrator. When he moves into the apartment block where she lives, this starts to look like a story of destructive romantic obsession. Or should we be more interested in the little mysteries of the young woman, in particular the four plant pots with seedlings she has called 'Father', 'Mother', 'Miss' and 'Master'? At the same time the scenes of the teenager's home life feel more like they belong in a cosy family story.

The shorter middle stories, ささやかな奇跡 (sasayakana kiseki "A modest miracle") and 兄貴の純情 (aniki no junjou, "My older brother's pure love") are lighter and more like the genre "puzzles of everyday life" popular in Japan. The difference is that it is not obvious to us until the end where the mystery in the story is. This is particularly true of 兄貴の純, the most lightweight story in the collection, which ingeniously confuses us with its narrator's attitude. In his eyes he is clearly narrating a mystery; but it is one that the reader cannot see.

The final story イノセント・デイズ (inosento deizu, "Innocent Days") is the most conventional in the collection. A teacher at a supplementary school meets a former student and finds that the tragedy that had marked her life when he knew her has continued into adulthood. She and her stepbrother had lost a father and mother respectively before their stepparents' marriage. Then they too died in a tragic accident. Now, the teacher learns that the stepbrother has also died in a recent traffic accident. This is a horrible story of psychological cruelty and revenge; but the narration is probably the least satisfactory of the collection. The story is told as a mystery whose elements are gradually revealed; but as readers we are only being shown the revelations for the most part, and have to put up with a lot of tedious and implausible exposition along the way.