Friday 18 August 2017 News Updated at 03:08 AM IST
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In guilt's company - Deccan Herald
In guilt's company
Chethana Dinesh,
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It's Obon. The annual Japanese day to honour the spirits of one's ancestors. Five 10-year-olds - Sae, Maki, Akiko, Yuka and Emily - are playing volleyball in their school ground.

A stranger in work clothes comes up to them and requests one of them to help him reach a ventilating fan in one of the pool changing-rooms. All The girls are eager to help. But, he chooses Emily. The other girls continue to play. Hours later, they realise Emily hasn't returned. They go in search of her, only to find her raped and murdered in the changing room. Unfortunately, none of them are able to recall the perpetrator's face, and Emily's mother Asako refuses to believe it.

Three years go by without the culprit being brought to book. Asako summons the four girls to her house and issues an ultimatum - that they either catch the killer or "atone for what you've done, in a way I'll accept," before the statute of limitations runs out.

Well, this sets the tone for Kanae Minato's latest, Penance. The traumatic murder and its impact on the lives of the four young girls is what the book is all about. As we traverse through the lives of the four girls, one after another, we realise it's not just the murder that's taken a toll on their being, but the threat issued by Asako that has left them guilt-ridden.

Guilt, that's born out of their inability to help the police in the investigation of the murder of their friend. Guilt, that's only made worse by Asako's accusation that "Emily was killed because she played with idiots like you. It is your fault. You're all murderers." As we turn the pages, heart-rending stories start tumbling out, from each one of the girls' lives, and skeletons in the cupboards too, piquing our interest.

Fifteen years after the murder, as the statute of limitations is about to expire, each one of them addresses a letter to Asako, recounting their lives post-murder. Each story, a recollection and reflection of the horrendous murder, traces the girls' journey from the gruesome past. However, they all intersect with each other in their eagerness to shake off their guilt and seek Asako's pardon.

It is sad to note that haunted by the memory of the grisly incident, and the threat issued by Asako, the girls have not had it smooth. The thought that the killer is somewhere out there, and that he could be watching them closely as they are the only witnesses, adds to their sense of dread. As Sae confesses, "I had the constant sensation that the murderer was watching me. Through gaps in a window, from the shadows of a building, from inside a car.

I was terrified, absolutely petrified. I didn't want to be killed..." The damage has been enormous, and it runs very deep beneath the surface of their ordinary lives. Unfortunately, all the four girls turn into murderers, though for different reasons. Reasons that again lead back to Emily's murder. While Sae ends up killing her control-freak husband with an infantilising fetish, Maki fatally attacks a disturbed intruder while trying to save one of her students from getting stabbed by him; Akiko takes the life of her favourite brother for his behaviour towards his step-daughter, and Yuka pushes her brother-in-law down the stairs. After the confession of their crimes to Asako, does the arrogant mother free them "from the curse that's held you in its spell for so many years"? Is the culprit brought to book? Does she finally realise that the young girls were also victims in their own right? The concluding part of Penance is about all this and more...

Penance being my second outing with Kanae Minato, after Confessions, I found the book unputdownable. Though the murder is recounted several times throughout the book, it doesn't end up sounding repetitive as each girl's perspective of the same is different, influenced by their nature, and their immediate environment (read family). We are led into their homes, introduced to their families to understand their personalities better, and finally made to witness the crimes they commit.

The air is thick with remorse, retribution, and penance. Towards the end of it all, one is left wondering if Asako was justified in holding the four girls responsible for her daughter's murder. However, her threat serves as the lens through which we glimpse and understand the characters, and also surmise their past, evaluate their present, and wonder about their future.

The narrative begins slowly, but quickly picks up steam, enticing the reader to thumb through the pages at a frenetic pace. The book has been labelled as a psychological thriller by many. Well, if you ask me, it's much, much more than that.

Kanae Minato,
translated by
Philip Gabriel


2017, pp 227,Rs 499