The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino

goddersschronicleI did not think I was going to like this book. Maybe it was winning it for free from a goodreads giveaway, past wins of which have not exactly been of stellar quality. Maybe it was because it’s one of those small-size hardcover books with gigantic margins and space between the words whose physical heft seems an attempt to disguise a lack of substance. Or maybe I just have not read many good myth/fable narratives. Archetypes bore me.

But other than one huge flaw I’ll get into later, I enjoyed this book a good deal. There is going to be some general story (including ending) spoilers in this review.

Our protagonist, Namima, lives on a tiny island south of Japan, where as a child she is suddenly chosen to be the island’s “priestess of darkness”. Well, she learns she was chosen suddenly anyway — actually this was determined to be her destiny before birth. Being the priestess of darkness entails living alone in a hut next to the cave where all the island’s dead are placed to decompose, having next to no human contact, and absolutely, unconditionally remaining a virgin. Why? It’s just one of many cruel and nonsensical rules observed by the island’s populace to please the gods. In-narrative, it’s the catalyst for Namima to flee the island and to get the reader supremely pissed off at the the whims of “fate” or “God” as created, interpreted, and enforced by the (patriarchal) island’s tribal government. It’s a subtle touch that once the actual gods enter the story, none of them give a shit about any of this.

After fleeing the island and experiencing near-cosmic betrayal, Namima ends up meeting Shinto creation-goddess-turned-underworld-goddess, Izanami. With the assistance of creation god, Izanaki, Izanami had previously birthed most of the world and Shinto pantheon. Until she died a lingering death after birthing the god of fire (who is literally made of fire!! She succumbed to the burns). Izanaki attempted to enter the underworld to bring her back, but ran for his cowardly life upon seeing her festering corpse. Izanami, who is now totally bitter about this shit — being dead due to childbirth that Izanaki took part in but suffered none of the physical consequences and which he has now ran from — decides to start killing off one thousand earthlings a day. Izanaki, in response, decides he is going to impregnate fifteen hundred women a day to counter this. Izanami decides to make one thousand of those mothers her victims.

So, thematically speaking here: women get a raw deal because they have to deal with all the physical dangers (and child rearing follow up) of birth while men get off scott free. Izanaki actually continues to birth things (such as the moon goddess) after he escapes the underworld. These births are stand ins for the richer life experiences men can often claim later on in life that women cannot. Or that men can keep making babies regardless of age. There’s a key line where Namima is lamenting her plight in life/death and wonders why Izanami is so cold. Izanami points out that gods don’t really suffer like humans do. Namima asks Izanami why she suffers if that’s so.

Izanami replies: Because I am a female god.

This is cool and all, but the story takes a jarring but fascinating turn at this point and stops Namima’s first person account in favor of following Izanaki, who is off adventuring and laying the most beautific ladies of the land as is his wont. He’s not so much a bad guy as selfish and oblivious. Through a convoluted series of events, Izanaki realizes he’s basically been a dick for millennia and accepts a mortal’s limited life and aging, admits his mistakes with Izanaki, gives up serial monogamy and decides to stay with the next woman he has children with.

He treks on down to the underworld to tell Izanami this, to apologize and ask that she stop killing all those people every day. And Izanami… forgives him? Stops the slaughter? Lets Izanami go live and die like the mortal man he now is?

No! She locks him in the underworld and kills his ass. Then continues to massacre one thousand a people a day for eternity. The end.

I find myself… perplexed. But in a good way. Usually myths/fables have a clear cut moral, point, whatever you want to call it. What’s the takeaway here? The nature of God is unknowable? Izanaki’s epiphany doesn’t excuse thousands of years of neglect? Women still have to carry all the babies? I honestly have no idea. None of it fits. And I like it.

The thing holding this book back, the thing that makes it merely good and not great is the writing. As someone who cannot read a word of Japanese, I do not know if this is writer or translator, but the prose is incredibly bland, simple, and redundant. Things are described often as “impossible to describe”, “beyond description”. Namima tells us at least once she cannot describe the emotions she is feeling. It’s essentially “You had to be there, man!” in novel form. I think you sort of expect a poetic touch to myth that is absent here too. Ah well.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

blindass2The main thread of The Blind Assassin is the written accord of an elderly woman, Iris, now poor but once wealthy, recounting her early 20th century life in Toronto and Port Ticonderoga, Ontario. In between these chapters are split a novel written by Iris’ dead-by-her-own-hand sister Laura, titled The Blind Assassin. For the sake of clarity, every time I mention The Blind Assassin in this review from hereon, I mean Laura’s book and not Margaret Atwood’s. The stories within stories motif continues further in The Blind Assassin as it follows a nameless first person protagonist having an illicit love affair with man who tells her sci-fi stories… about a blind assassin. In between those novel chapters are newspaper clippings detailing the lives of the major figures in the primary narrative.

All of these threads are intertwined, and reading one allows you to make assumptions about the others. They tie together by the end, and questions are answered, in what is not so much a twist as a gradual reveal. This is where the narrative is most persuasive and compelling: piecing together the clues of what happened leading up to Laura’s suicide, deciding who is who, and why The Blind Assassin was written in the first place. There is a hint very early (the sci-fi storyteller making a lewd comment about his lover’s body of all things) that apprises the careful reader that something is not as it seems here.

The problem is that the story is split unevenly — Iris’ recollection of her youth takes up the vast majority of the 500+ page novel. Her story, while very well written, is absolutely something we have seen before. The political/gender/class tumult following the Great War. The fall of old money and the rise of new. The Old World is dead and so is God. Again, it’s well written. Iris as protagonist is not so much likeable — in fact, sometimes her actions are incredibly disappointing and there is a lingering sense that she was purposely ignoring clues that darker goingons were afoot — but instead a character you become more and more invested in as the story goes on. It’s sort of shocking to read a sympathetic mother who has such a negative opinion of her adult daughter, and this is compounded by a short scene where said daughter is described and you realize Iris was right about her. But then you remember the story is told via an unreliable narrator — Iris herself.

But the what happened? strand is strongest and the book could have done with more of the in-story love affair/science fiction tale of the blind assassin. There is so little of it that it sort of ruins the conceit it could have been a full-length, published novel. Then again, it’s my cynical belief that The Great Gatsby’s longevity and place in the American consciousness is heavily imputed to it’s length and how easy it is to read, so maybe The Blind Assassin could have followed suit.

I will also admit a bias against the bildungsroman. Both as a personal preference and because I find authors so rarely nail the passing of time and the changing of places and people particularly accurately or believably. I enjoyed this novel. I feel like this review is giving off a considerably more negative vibe than how I was feeling as I read the book. Seriously, it was good! So, I am not sure if this is something that I would consider an exception to that bias or if that bias is the key to why I feel like I should have liked this book more than I did (or at least wrote a more positive review).