Wednesday, March 3, 2010

All She Was Worth

All She Was Worth
Author: Miyuki Miyabe
Oriel, 1996 (original publication in Japanese language 1992)
296 pages

My friend Elyse, who lived in Japan for almost a year when she was attending university, tells me that Japanese fiction is . . .  different. Unlike Western fiction, which tends to be very linear, Japanese fiction is more circular. In describing what this means, Elyse said the story might start with the mention of a train station . . . and then take the long way around (so to speak) as the plot unfolds, only to wind up back at the train station again. I haven't lived in Japan (but I've been there! And I've ridden the bullet train!) and I certainly haven't studied Japanese literature, but sure enough, All She Was Worth begins with: "The rain started just as the train pulled out of Ayase Station."

Miyuki Miyabe is a prolific writer who is very popular in her native Japan, but so far, only a few of her books have been translated into English. All She Was Worth is a detective story (the author also writes science fiction, historical fiction, and the highly successful anime series Brave Story) whose main character is Shunsuke Honma, a middle-aged widower/single father/Tokyo police inspector on disability leave. Out of the blue, he's approached by Jin, the nephew of his deceased wife. Jin is a successful banker whose fiancée, a young woman called Shoko Sekine, has gone missing. He asks Honma to find her.

Honma learns that Shoko was recently turned down for a credit card due to a bankruptcy a few years earlier. As he searches for the young woman, he realizes she isn't who she claimed to be - and the 'real' Shoko Sekine is also missing. Honma spends lots of times in train stations and on bullet trains as he chases clues up and down Honshū island. Along the way, his eyes open to a serious problem in modern Japanese society: ravenous consumerism, especially among the younger generation, and staggering amounts of personal debt. He learns that both the real Shoko and her impostor both paid huge prices for their financial sins, and in some cases the sins of their parents. All She Was Worth asks: is keeping up with the Joneses (or the Suzukis or Watanabes) really worth it? The answer: it's a lot more complicated than you might expect.

I was mesmerized by this book. True, it's not a nail biter, and I wasn't sitting on the edge of my seat. But I couldn't stop reading it. There was nothing obvious about the story. The "bad guy" (or girl, in this case) wasn't even certain. The ending wasn't wrapped up nice and tidy-like (and that will drive many Western readers nuts.)

But it was mesmerizing, nonetheless.