Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime writers build suspense and tension not so much through adding in a lot of action as through psychological means. In their novels, it’s the interactions among the characters, and what happens to them psychologically, that matters the most. And as we’ll see, those novels can be just as unsettling as any ‘action-packed’ novel – perhaps even more so. To show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight today on Kanae Minato’s debut novel Confessions.
As the novel begins, middle school teacher and single mother Yūko Moriguchi is addressing her class. Part of her reason for doing so is to announce her resignation. But she has another purpose in mind. Her four-year-old daughter Manami has recently died in what was first thought to be a terrible drowning accident. But Yūko knows differently. She has discovered that Manami was murdered; what’s more, she knows by whom. Two of the students in her class were responsible, and in her speech, she makes it clear that she knows who they are.
She also doesn’t think that the Japanese law enforcement/judicial system can be trusted to dispense an appropriate punishment for murder in this case, because the killers are juveniles. So she has put together her own plan for punishing Manami’s murderers. She doesn’t spell it out in so many words, but her intention isn’t lost on her students. When she finishes her speech, she duly dismisses class and leaves her position.
Her replacement Yoshiteru Terada takes over and on the surface it looks as though life will go on. But very soon it’s clear that things are not at all the way they seem. As time goes on, things begin to spin out of control, especially for three particular students: Mizuki Kitahara, Naoki Shitamura and Shūya Watanabe. As the three students’ situations continue to get worse, there are also serious impacts on their families. And in the end, we learn exactly what happened to Manami and what Yūko Moriguchi has done about it.
This novel takes place partly at a middle school and features several middle-school teachers, students and their families. So one important element in the novel is the look it gives readers at the Japanese education system. Some aspects of it will seem unusual to those not accustomed to this system. But other things are more universal. For instance, we see in Terada the well-meaning teacher who tries to befriend his students and manage their activities without really knowing them or understanding what the class dynamics are like. There are good students, poor students, ‘outcasts,’ popular students and other kinds of students who will seem familiar. Also familiar will be the sometimes very chilling culture of bullying, of desperately wanting acceptance and of the pressure from families to do well.
The novel also looks at family life and the desire to be the perfect family with well-adjusted and successful children. As the story goes on and those top layers are peeled away, we see that no family is really perfect and some are downright dysfunctional. And, you could argue, that plays its role in the events of the story.
There are also larger questions that are addressed in the story, if not exactly answered. At what point do young people become responsible for their own conduct? Just how innocent are they? Should the law enforcement/justice system treat them as adults? If so, under what circumstances? To what extent is family background responsible for what young people do? These are not easy questions and Minato doesn’t propose easy answers.
This is a very dark story. Readers who prefer a sense of hope in their stories will notice this. One of the things that makes it bleak is that each of the main characters has a very, very dark side. Some hide it better than others, but even in those cases, it’s a thin veneer of ‘normal’ (whatever that even is). What’s more, each character justifies her or his actions, without considering what they really mean. What’s also unsettling and dark about this story is that it doesn’t require a lot of suspension of disbelief. With a few exceptions, it’s possible to imagine the events happening in real life.
The outcome of the novel is also dark. We know what happens to all of the characters, and we know the truth about Manami’s death, but no-one comes out of the story unscarred. In fact some characters are permanently damaged.
There is also a strong element of moral ambiguity in the novel. At one level, it’s very clear that Yūko Moriguchi has been tragically wronged. Her daughter has been murdered. So it’s completely understandable that she would want revenge. But that’s only one side of her. The students responsible for the murder are, at one level, clearly killers. And the more we learn about them, the more we see that they are very far from ‘model young people.’ At the same time, there is the sense that they too are victims. Minato doesn’t make this a stereotypical case of ‘abused child from a broken home lashes out.’ All the same, we can feel some sympathy for them. Readers who prefer clear cases of victim/perpetrator will notice this. In that way it’s the sort of novel that lends itself well to debate.
The story is told from several different viewpoints, including Yūko’s own. Also presented are those of three of her students, and those of the mother and sister of one of those students. As the point of view changes, readers get different perspectives on what led up to the murder, what actually happened that day, and what the consequences have been for everyone. This means that the timeline sometimes shifts. Readers who prefer a linear structure will notice those shifts. That said though, it isn’t difficult to work out whose story is being told. As a side note, each chapter’s title gives an interesting perspective on what’s presented in that chapter.
Confessions is not a book for the psychologically faint of heart. It shows what seemingly ordinary people can be like when the proverbial mask is taken off. And it shows a bit of the underside of middle school life. It’s the story of what happens in the wake of a devastating tragedy, and how it can have terrible consequences for even innocent people. It’s set in a typical Japanese middle school and gives insight into that context. But what’s your view? Have you read Confessions? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 12 January/Tuesday 13 January – Just Another Angel – Mike Ripley
Monday 19 January/Tuesday 20 January – Cradle to Grave – Eleanor Kuhns
Monday 26 January/Tuesday 27 January – The Killing of Emma Gross – Damien Seaman