Book Title: VILLAIN
Author: Shuichi Yoshida
Publisher: Harvill Secker
It's January 6, 2002. The body of Yoshino, a female insurance saleswoman, is found at Mitsue Pass, an eery inland spot in the southernmost region of Japan, rumoured to be home to ghosts. A young construction worker, Yuichi, is soon arrested by the Nagasaki police on suspicion of strangling the victim.
I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to read VILLAIN, although the Japan Book News quote on the back of the book "... lays out a panorama of modern Japanese society, a patchwork composed of people of various classes and occupations..." really appealed. And the book most definitely did not disappoint.
Intricate, telling, tightly woven, tense and yet somehow languid and flowing, VILLAIN was an outstanding read. Not just because of the way that the identity of the murderer slowly creeps up on you, but also because of the way the various voices of the characters grab the reader and hold your attention. I understand from a chat with a friend of mine that the original Japanese version may have used particular dialects or very individual voices for each of the characters that clearly transmits their origins / position in society. That aspect isn't as obvious in the English version, but there are still enough elements in the style to make you realise there are differences.
VILLAIN is not a whodunnit nor is it a book about justice, revenge or resolution. It's more about the life choices that can quickly turn one person into a victim and another into a murderer. It's also a rather telling look at a lot of aspects of Japanese society - pressure on the young to conform, and how so many of those societal "norms" result in a quiet sort of despair - a longing for connection. It also shows how the stratas of society impact that. There are aspects of the life of the elderly which are held up to scrutiny as well - ultimately this is not a book which pulls much in the way of punches as it looks at the lives of most of the characters.
Whilst this book is definitely a thriller, it's a slow burning, dark and quite moving. The action is pushed along in a series of chapters told in the different voices of the characters, frequently in differing timeframes as the reader is taken backwards and forwards before the death of Yoshino and after. Yoshino, a young woman strangely lost somewhere between her daytime job as an insurance saleswoman and her night-time activities which veer closely towards a sort of casual prostitution, but always with this clanging sense of a search for love, acceptance, connection. Her background of loving, albeit marginalised parents, is contrasted strongly by that of the man she meets via an on-line dating service. Yuichi is a young man with much to resent in his life. Dumped by his mother into the care of his grandparents as a very young child, he now works in construction and struggles with the role of support to those now ailing grandparents. Yuichi's expression of individuality is all in his car, his love life as bleak and opportunistic as Yoshino. These two somehow seem to be destined, in other ways you can feel the tension as both of them struggle against the reality of their likely fates versus their ultimate desires.
An overwhelming reading experience that is really going to appeal to readers who like thoughtful, discomforting and quite confrontational reading, VILLAIN is one of those books that will stay with me.