Book Review

An archetypal story of female oppression in the myth of Japan's creation

Reviewed by Tan Twan Eng

Published: March 3, 2013

In bestselling Japanese crime writer Natsuo Kirino's first novel to be translated into English, Out, four women working the nightshift in a bento factory help their co-worker cut up and dispose of her unfaithful husband's body; the women subsequently fall out over the insurance money. Another of her novels, Grotesque, centred on a prostitute and her sister, both of them struggling against the subordinate role of women in Japan, searching for a way to have control over their lives. This theme – the subjugated position of women in society – forms the core of The Goddess Chronicle, a retelling of the myth of Japan's creation and the latest in Canongate's Myths series. Sixteen-year-old Namima and her elder sister Kamikuu live on a teardrop-shaped paradisal island far off the south-east coast of Yamato, the old name for Japan. Like many of Kirino's female characters, Namima yearns to break free of her place in a restrictive and hierarchical society. She violates her community's gravest taboos and has to flee the island: but she is betrayed and ends up in the Realm of the Dead, where she meets the goddess Izanami. The goddess appears miserable and angry, but, as Namima soon discovers, she has reasons to be.

At the heart of Kirino's tale is a retelling of the relationship between Izanami, the Goddess of Creation, and her husband Izanaki, drawn from Kojiki or the Chronicles of Ancient Matters, the seventh-century record of the legends of the founding of Japan. Churning the empty seas with a spear, Izanami and Izanaki created the islands of Japan from the water dripping off the blade's tip. To consummate their union, they circled a massive pillar, each walking in opposite directions to meet up on the other side. Rounding the pillar, Izanami saw her husband and greeted him. When their children were born deformed and had to be put in a boat and floated out to sea, they asked the higher gods what they had done wrong. They were told that it was because Izanami, the female, should not have been the one to speak first when they met at the pillar.

Betrayed by her husband, Izanami has been trapped in the Realm of The Dead, becoming the deity of the underworld. "It's always the woman who dies," she tells Namima. To revenge herself against Izanaki, daily she selects a thousand people to die. In retaliation, Izanaki impregnates a thousand women a day in the guise of a human man. But the goddess has the last word: the people she kills are the women who have slept with her husband.

Like the goddess, Namima is consumed with anger, unable to forget her old life. She longs to understand why she was murdered: and she wants revenge on the man who did this to her.

The two women's bitterness infuses the book. Fans of Kirino's crime novels will find much to savour in The Goddess Chronicle. The structure of her tale recalls her earlier books: a woman is betrayed, more than once. She has to go against what her own family and community expect of her. There is a murder, and we want to know the murderer's motives. The woman ends up in the underworld. We want her to find a way to obtain her revenge, not just on the murderer, but on the world she once lived in.

Unlike her earlier novels, Kirino's writing here is abrupt, the translation often resorting to familiar phrases. The section of the book where we follow Izanaki's earthly wanderings weighs the narrative down and could have been considerably shortened. But Kirino is a master at creating an atmosphere of unease and distrust between her characters. In her skilful hands we see that the divide between man and woman is greater than the one between humans and gods. Kirino's retelling is a taut, disturbing and timeless tale, filled with rage and pathos for the battles that women have to fight every day, battles which have, apparently, existed from the moment of creation.

• Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists is published by Myrmidon.
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