[Review] Penance - Kanae Minato

Title of Book: Penance
Author: Kanae Minato
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication Year: 2017
Language: English
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Format: Ebook
Pages: 240

When a group of young girls are approached by a stranger, they cannot know that the encounter will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Hours later, Emily is dead. The surviving girls alone can identify the killer. But not one of them remembers his face...
Driven mad by grief, the victim's mother demands the girls find the murderer or else atone for their crimes. If they do neither, she will have her revenge. She will make them pay...
From the critically acclaimed author of Confessions, Penance is a dark and disturbing tale of revenge that will leave you reeling.


Fifteen years ago, Sae, Akiko, Maki, Yuko and Emily were playing throwing ball at the school when the ball suddenly went astray and caught by a man. This man claimed to be a repairman and told the girls that he needed help from one of them to reach the ventilation. Each girl was excited to help but the man chose Emily to help him. The man then convinced the rest of the girls to stay put and let him and Emily go to the school pool and work the ventilation. Hours passed by and Emily still hadn't came back. So the rest of the girls went to check on her only to find her lying lifeless on the changing room. Three years went by and the murderer still hasn't been caught because the girls couldn't remember the face of the man and there's not enough clue. Hoping the girls would remember after putting some time after the murder, Emily's mother then called the girls to her home. Even then they told her that they couldn't remember the man's face. Frustrated and fueled by anger, Emily's mother threatened them to find the murderer or (penance). If they do neither of them, she threatened to do revenge on them. Fast forward to present day, the statute of limitation for the case is almost up and the police still hasn't caught the murderer. Then the unexpected happened to these four girls.
Kanae Minato is a popular mystery writer in Japan. She's written many mystery books but only two are translated into English, Penance and Confessions. She's famous as the writer of a genre called iyamisu in Japan which translated literally as eww mystery. It's a sub genre of mystery which explore the dark side of humanity and readers would often say eww while reading. With that being said, as an early warning, if you're uncomfortable with that kind of book, then unfortunately this book is not for you. There's a child murder in this book, and although the murder and rape itself isn't described, the state in which Emily was found is disturbing. If you're not okay with that, then again, this book is not for you. 
I always have a soft spot for Japanese writer because I love Japanese culture. Their culture is still heavily influenced by myth and ancient beliefs which in some ways make their writings mysterious, weird, creepy and twisted sometimes. I just love those kinds of stuff. I haven't read her first translated book, Confessions. However, I watched the movie adaptation and it's everything that I could have asked for in a Japanese psychological thriller movie. It's so good that I then decided to put Confessions on my wishlist and also why I pick this book up.
This book is told from several perspectives, the four girls and Emily's mother. It's also written in epistolary form. Each chapter is told in form of letter or speech. Even though the speech sometimes gets a response from the audience, it's still written as a monologue so we really focus on the character who's speaking. Because of that, we get a sense of what kind of person she is and how deeply the murder affects her life.
These four girls have different personalities. Each of them react to the murder differently. One girl is deeply affected that it also affects her physiology. Another one is also deeply affected that her line between reality and hallucination is blurred. Some even don't realize how much they're affected. The thing is, what makes them react the way they did is more because of Emily's mother rather than the murder itself. After the murder, the girls tried to move on with their life. But then Emily's mother demand them to find the murderer or do an act of penance that she'll approve. She guilt-trip the girls until all they can think about is what kind of penance they'll do. Of course, it would traumatize them, especially in their age. The threat makes Emily's mother seems wicked and mean. What kind of adult threatens little girls for things they didn't do? A grieving and frustrated mother apparently. Minato also include a chapter from her perspective that will explain the reasoning behind her action. That way we'll see from both sides.
This book is set in a small town where everyone knows everyone, until a new factory opened and bring newcomers. Emily's family is among these newcomers. Even though there are newcomers in the town, the original townsfolk is a close-knit community that they thought of the newcomers as the outsiders. The small town mentality is also what alienates Emily's mother. This small town aspect is repeatedly mentioned in the book, which also makes sense as to how the murder happened in the first place. This is the kind of crime that never happened in the town before. Parents don't necessarily teach their kids about stranger danger. 
Although I love mystery, I didn't care about the mystery aspect of this book as much as the psychological aspect of the characters. It fascinated me. Japan is a conservative country, but the author didn't shy away and just blatantly show the dark side of women. So it contrasts with how Japanese society view women. If people said that she's the Gillian Flynn of Japan, I understand where that come from. But also, she has an entirely different writing style.
Overall, I love this book. It's twisted, gruesome, but it manages to make me sympathize toward the characters. Maybe it's true that the easiest comparison is to Gillian Flynn. If you like reading Gillian Flynn's books, then this book is for you.

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