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The Less Dead by Denise Mina — book review

The Less Dead is a gripping, if bleak, piece of tartan noir. When sex workers, drug addicts, migrant workers, and otherwise marginalised groups are victims of murder, they are called the ‘less dead’. Their deaths are less important, not as ‘impactful’. Denise Mina’s novel, in a similar vein to recent releases such as Long Bright River, is less interested in its ‘serial killer’ storyline and more concerned with depicting the realities and experiences of women whose lives have been punctuated by sexual abuse, violence, and addiction.
Set in Glasgow, the novel introduces to thirty-something Margot Dunlop, a doctor still grieving the recent death of her mother. Margot is struggling to cope, with her break up from Joe, her longterm boyfriend, and with her pregnancy. She finds herself wanting to learn more about her birth mother, Susan, only to learn that she was brutally killed years before. Susan’s was one of the nine victims of a serial killer who preyed on sex workers. Since Susan’s death Nikki, Susan’s older sister, has received a string of menacing letters who could only have been written by the murderer. While Nikki seems eager to get to know her niece, a disbelieving Margot is hesitant to venture into a ‘world’ she thinks little of. When Margot also starts to receive crude letters, she’s forced to reconsider.
As Margot learns more of Susan, a young woman who refused to labelled as a victim, and her birth family, she finds herself challenging her own biases.
Mina presents her readers with a thought-provoking interrogation of class. The women she writes of, their struggles and traumas, are rendered with striking empathy. Margot, however, comes across as a far less nuanced character. Her remoteness seemed unwarranted and unexplained. She’s curt to the point of being brusque, she makes a few decision that aren’t truly delved into, making her seem out of character for the sake of the plot. Nikki, by comparison, not only felt truly real, but she’s really admirable. Margot’s relationship with her ‘problematic’ best friend and her ex detracted from the overall the story. These two characters didn’t seem all that believable.
While the third person present tense narration did add a sense of immediacy, or urgency if you will, to the novel, it did occasionally did frustrate me. There are certain conversations that don’t have quotations marks and they also became a bit gimmicky (it made sense in certain scenes, but the more this happened the less ‘meaningful’ it became). Another pet peeve of mine were the sections from the ‘culprits’ perspective. These were brief and struck me as salacious, as in ‘glimpse the thoughts of a deviant mind’ (as if this individual’s letters didn’t convey their state of mind).
Mina’s story is certainly evocative and gritty. The scenes focused on Nikki were easily my favourite. Margot’s ‘personal’ struggles, on the other hand, just didn’t grab my interest. Perhaps this is because I didn’t particularly warm to her character, whose wooden personality reminded me of the narrator of Long Bright River.
Nevertheless, I did find Mina’s examination of the way in which women such as Nikki and Susan are treated by their society to be both incisive and affecting. While Mina doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities and daily horrors of addiction and prostitution, she doesn’t make her characters into ‘pitiable’ stereotypes. The thriller elements give the narrative an element of suspense, and the tension between Margot and those connected to Susan did gave the story a certain ‘edge’.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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A Man by Keiichirō Hirano – book review

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“It’s unbearable to have your identity summed up by one thing and one thing only and for other people to have control over what that is.”

Keiichirō Hirano has spun an intriguing psychological tale. A Man presents its readers with an in-depth and carefully paced mystery revolving around identity theft.
Hirano novel’s opening is rather metafictional as it is narrated by an unmanned novelist who after bumping into a man called Akira Kido becomes fascinated by Kido’s own obsession with another man (the narrator goes on to compare the story he’s about to tell to a painting by René Magritte entitled ‘Not to Be Reproduced’):

“With all the unique characters that make an appearance, some of you might wonder why on earth I didn’t pick one of the bit players to be the protagonist. While Kido-san will in fact obsessed with the life of a man, it is in Kido-san, viewed from behind as he chases this man, that I sensed something to be seen.”

Kido is a divorce attorney who has become detached from his wife. She, in turn, shows little interest in him or his job and is rather unsympathetic when it comes to his Zainichi background (that is ethnically Korean residents of Japan). Kido’s practical and reserved nature frustrate his wife (who often mistakes impassiveness for callousness) While Kido disapproves of his wife’s strict parenting style, she mistakes his reserved disposition as a sign of callousness. When a growingly disillusioned Kido is contacted by Rié Takemoto, a former client of his, he finds himself drawn into the life of another man. After Rié’s second husband dies in a work-related accident, she discovers that his name and past are that of another man. Throughout the course of his investigation Kido questions X’s motives. What could make someone want to conceal their true name or background? And what constitutes an identity?
As Kido comes in contact with the various individuals and families connected to X, and as his relationship with his own wife becomes further strained, he grows fond of this unknown X and starts to see the appeal of ‘starting’ over.
Although Kido’s investigation is the running thread that connects together these seemingly disparate characters and events, it sometimes seems more of a background. The narrative provides a panoramic view of the characters Kido comes into contact during the course of his investigation. While many of Kido’s thoughts are dedicated to X and issues of identity, he’s an erudite and his mind will often wonder down philosophical paths. He makes many literary allusions (he compares his stance towards other Zainichi as being similar to the way in which Levin—from Anna Karenina—views ‘peasants’). Kido’s precarious relationship to his ethnicity is one of the novel’s main motifs:

“Since he had grown up almost entirely as a “Japanese person” even before he naturalized, he was profoundly uneasy with the idea that he was either a direct victim or perpetuator of the troubles the best Korean enclaves.”

Kido passes most of his time in contemplation. He muses on the myth of Narcissus, the nature vs. nurture debate, questions his marriage, and those of other people, considers the notion of an identity and broods over his own loneliness:

“Yes, loneliness. He did not shy from this word to express the dark emotion that had been seething in his chest of late. It was a bottomless, middle-aged kind of loneliness that he never could have even conceived when he was younger, a loneliness that saturated him with bone-chilling sentimentality the moment he let down his guard.”

Hirano’s Japan is vividly rendered. From its recent history to its social norms, Hirano’s novel provides plenty of insights into contemporary Japan. There are extensive discussions on Japan’s penal and legal system (given Kido’s line of work there is a lot on divorce and custody laws).
As much as I liked novel (identity concealment makes for a fascinating subject) I was deeply disappointed by the abrupt way it ended. After spending so much time with Kido, I felt cheated by those final chapters. Kido is seemingly discarded, and readers are left wondering what exactly he will do after he makes an important discovery.
Still, I would probably recommend this one, especially to those who are interested in learning about contemporary Japan or for those who prefer more thought-provoking and philosophical mysteries.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Revenge by Yōko Ogawa — book review

12987389.jpgHaving read two novels by Yōko Ogawa, I was curious to read Revenge, a collection of interconnected short stories. Ogawa’s magnifies the sense unease that usually permeates her narratives (even The Housekeeper and the Professor has its unsettling moments), as these stories seem intent on unnerving their readers. The characters within these pages are morbid, obsessive, prone to macabre thoughts and obscure actions.
What drew me the most was to ‘discover’ what linked these various characters together. I believe Ogawa succeeded in creating interesting connections between these different, or perhaps not so different, people. However, truth be told, I found that at times she sacrificed potentially terrifying moments for gratuitously grotesque scenes. Personally, I find that relying too much on obvious sources of ‘discomfort’ (such as detailed descriptions of dead animals or torture methods) is a ‘cheap’ way to repulse your readers. I wasn’t horrified or afraid, merely disgusted. The characters also seemed to have the same excited way of envisioning tortured bodies…which got old fast.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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