Author: Kanae Minato
Genre: Crime Thrillers
Number of Pages: 240
This novel is short and seems at first like it will be pretty straightforward but it ends up being more complex than I initially suspected. All the connections between the characters and the different layers of the mystery tied my brain in knots. Before you go into this review, this book is very dark and disturbing and has themes that might be triggering for some people, including child rape and murder. The subject matter is also portrayed somewhat graphically so people who don’t like ‘darker’ fiction might want to avoid this.
When they’re ten years old, a group of girls lose their friend when she is molested and murdered by a stranger who lures her away while they’re playing together. Sae, Maki, Akiko, and Yuka already have a ton of issues to begin with and when their rich, pretty friend Emily is murdered they pretty much fall apart. Weirdly, though, it doesn’t seem like the murder itself is what really messes them up, but what Emily’s mom does afterwards.
She blames each of the girls for not caring enough about her daughter and showing little interest in helping the police find her killer. She also tells them that if they don’t remember the face of the man who raped and killed Emily, she will enact a terrible revenge on them. She isn’t specific about what that revenge will consist of, except that it will be ‘far worse’ than what happened to her daughter.
As adults, the four girls have all murdered someone in their lives. Why? Did Emily’s mother’s pressure on their consciences cause them to lose their minds? Along with finding out who killed Emily, Penance weaves a strange and disturbing yarn about how things that happen to people as kids follow them throughout their lives in sometimes perplexing ways.
To begin with, Emily’s mother’s ultimatum to her daughter’s friends seems grotesque and over-the-top, despite the unimaginable horror she has lived through. When you get her perspective at the end it starts to make more sense, but I still didn’t feel like it quite worked. None of the characters are likable and as the book focuses on their more undesirable qualities, I was surprised that it ended on a (somewhat) hopeful note.
I didn’t think the sense of bittersweetness and closure exactly fit. It was just such an angry, dark book, and I felt like it should have had a more cynical denouement. Nevertheless, I liked this book and I especially enjoyed the way the story was told. Each section is narrated by a different character but things are never quite set up in the way you’d expect.
They all come together eventually but as separate threads of the same story they continue to puzzle and tantalize. This writer does a good job of revealing her endgame one chilling surprise at a time, and I’m definitely interested in reading her first book, Confessions. Confessions was made into a movie and I think it would be interesting fodder for a screen adaptation too, but it should be set in Japan like the book and avoid being Americanized at all costs.