Riku Onda, born in 1964, is the professional name of Nanae Kumagai. She has been writing fiction since 1991 and has won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers, the Japan Booksellers’ Award, the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel for The Aosawa Murders, the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize, and the Naoki Prize. Her work has been adapted for film and television. This is her first crime novel and the first time she is translated into English.
About the Translator
Alison Watts is an Australian-born Japanese to English translator and long time resident of Japan. She has translated Aya Goda’s TAO: On the Road and On the Run in Outlaw China (Portobello, 2007) and Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste (Oneworld Publications, 2017), and her translations of The Aosawa Murders and Spark (Pushkin Press, 2020) by Naoki Matayaoshi are forthcoming.
About the book
On a stormy summer day in the 1970s the Aosawas, owners of a prominent local hospital, host a large birthday party in their villa on the Sea of Japan. The occasion turns into tragedy when 17 people die from cyanide in their drinks. The only surviving links to what might have happened are a cryptic verse that could be the killer’s, and the physician’s bewitching blind daughter, Hisako, the only family member spared death.
The youth who emerges as the prime suspect commits suicide that October, effectively sealing his guilt while consigning his motives to mystery. Inspector Teru is convinced that Hisako had a role in the crime, as are many in the town, including the author of a bestselling book about the murders written a decade after the incident. The truth is revealed through a skillful juggling of testimony by different voices: family members, witnesses and neighbors, police investigators and of course the mesmerizing Hisako herself.
The Aosawa family is celebrating a triple generational birthday, very auspicious and a day to welcome friends and family. The last thing they are expecting is the day to end in mass murder. The only family member to survive is surrounded by rumours and suspicion about her involvement despite the death of the prime suspect.
The story examines the nature of truth and justice by having different people recount their version of the event and their experience. It certainly does have the haunting atmosphere and style of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, but more importantly it has the same overall thread of morality about it. Right or wrong – evil or good. Does the deed become less important, as it slips into the darkened chambers of myth and history, ergo what’s the point of enforcing punishment?
I think the more poignant question the author asks is if the murders at some point become the silent trees – when a tree falls and no one is around does it still make a sound? The answer is yes, just because there is no one to hear the sound it doesn’t mean the sound didn’t happen.
I loved both the story and Onda’s style. The reader becomes the silent observer and simultaneously the occasional narrator as the story is relayed in a series of memories, statements and interviews. It often gives the sense of being on uneven terrain, unbalanced and not quite sure where this is going or why, and sometimes it’s not even clear who is taking us there. However that is part of the brilliance of the plotting, the meticulous stringing together of fragments, flashbacks and observations.
It’s literary fiction, a beautiful lyrical dance of words and a mystery, which may not give a satisfactory answer to the question that plagues both the reader and the characters.
I thought it was a captivating read. You can’t help but be drawn into the tragedy that becomes an obsession. The tragedy that is still collecting victims decades after the event. Onda is a force to be reckoned with and her name should be up there on the long and short lists of best books.