Penance by Kanae Minato

by Kristopher Cook
Read Time: 3 minutes

A Japanese tale of human depravity and the dark consequences of childhood trauma. If this has your attention, then you’ll love Kanae Minato’s psychological thriller, Penance.

How do you deal with the rape and murder of one of your childhood friends? This is the question answered in each chapter by Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko; all of Emily’s friends who were with her on the day she was killed.

Significantly, they each grow up with different lives, but with one thing in common – They always remember the day Emily was murdered just yards from where they were playing.

The final chapter of Penance is told from the perspective of Emily’s Mother, Asako, who has cursed the girls for not looking out for her daughter when she needed them most. She vows to make the girls pay for their crime.

As a result, having each chapter told from a different perspective, the book is narrated as a ‘vantage point’ piece. Everyone saw something different, yet the girls may not know what the others saw.

Maybe we should have been taught to scream and run away if a stranger talked to us?

Kanae Minato, Chapter 1 – French Doll

This creates a jigsaw of pieces that are slowly form when you read through all of the perspectives.

Kanae Minato

Having burst onto the Japanese literary stage with her first novel, Confessions, Kanae Minato has become a worldwide bestseller and has won the Japanese Booksellers Award (Confessions).

Penance Author Kanae Minato - Book Review
Penance author, Kanae Minato – Ayako Shimobayashi via LA Times

In Japan, Minato, a former economics teacher, has been given the moniker, ‘the Queen of Iyamisu’, meaning eww mystery. Iyamisu is a sub-genre of crime fiction that focuses on the dark and grotesque side of human nature. The genre also features many other prominent Japanese authors such as; Keigo Higashino (One of my all-time favourites), Soji Shimada, Natsuo Kirino and Seichō Matsumoto.

Review of Penance

Penance contains a healthy helping of moral haziness. Are the other children wrong for letting their friend go off with a stranger unguarded? Is the Mother right in pursuing her revenge by cursing their lives?

To clarify, this is where Minato’s writing comes into its own. She’s excellent at balancing that fine line of justice vs persecution. Building on the simple idea of blame and weighing it heavy on the young girls’ lives.

If anyone is to blame, it’s the guy who brutalised and murdered Emily in the first place, right?

At times, however, it can be difficult to relate to some of the characters, but this is because they are all women who’ve grown into different lives, some focusing on love and marriage, others on protecting others etc.

Closing Thoughts

To sum up, while not the greatest of psychological thrillers, Penance certainly hits the mark most of the way.

All of the girls are multi-dimensional and believable, and the same can be said for the Mother’s grieving. It’s disturbing enough to keep you interested in the main thread line, Emily’s murder, and it offers up some interesting questions.

Nonetheless, excellent character development is, unfortunately, let down by repetition. You’re reading the same story five times over with only a slightly tinted view each time.

However, if you enjoy your mysteries centred on unique points of view culminating in a final viewpoint with a dose of eerie forcefulness, then Penance is the book for you.

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