This book was an incredibly different reading experience considering it followed an historical fiction novel and a Regency romance. All that lush description and melodrama, followed by this very spare and quiet novel set over one night and mainly in one empty apartment. The contrast was stark and showed that we don’t need very much to convey a story and engage the reader. So short that I read it in one afternoon, this is a story of two people moving out of a flat and agreeing to spend their final night of the tenancy together. Aiko and Hiro are our only characters and their relationship has broken down since taking a trip together, trekking in the mountains of northern Japan. During the trek their mountain guide died inexplicably and both believe the other to be a murderer. This night is their last chance to get a confession out of each other and finally learn the truth. Who is the murderer and what actually happened on the mountain? This is a captured evening where a quiet battle of wills is taking place and the shocking events leading up to this night will finally be revealed.
My first assumption was that Hiro and Aiko are a couple, breaking up after living together, perhaps during their university years. The author conveys an eerie atmosphere, the couple are quite subdued and it’s almost as if they aren’t fully there. Have their minds sprung forward to their next step in life, or backwards to when things were different? There are those annoying marks and shadows on the walls that show where their furniture and pictures once were. The couple feel similar to those marks, like ‘ghostly shadows’ on the rug they’re merely an imprint of what was once present. Even their conversation is sparse, but when we’re taken into their minds we can see that’s where they really live. So much is going on emotionally and intellectually that I could imagine them giving off a sound, like a hum or buzz to signify the intensity of their inner thoughts. We never move out of the room, but we delve into the recent and distant pasts through their inner world. In the room with each other, they start in a quiet and measured way, then with each new piece of information they start to calculate and consider the other. This is where the tension builds, we can feel it inside them and it’s only a matter of time before it spills over into the room. Then comes the first accusation and the pace picks up. It’s not long before the first revelations begin.
I thought that the author used metaphors and memories beautifully and wove them into the psychological game being played. One is the ‘Pearl Earring’ song by Yumi Matsutoya that Hiro remembers an old girlfriend listening to when he was at school. The memory is triggered by Aiko saying she lost an earring while packing. In the song the girl throws her pearl earring under her lover’s bed when she knows it’s the last time she’ll be there. Aiko suggests she doesn’t want this reminder of her lover so throws it away, perhaps after ceremonially throwing the other at a place with special meaning. Hiro gives it more of a metaphorical meaning – one half of a pair is no use without the other. Is this what he thinks about him and Aiko. Aiko hasn’t lost her earring, she has stuffed it in his backpack and claims not to know why. She describes it as a landline, just waiting for him to find it. I think we leave things behind when we want to return or be remembered. The one that resonated most with me was the fish metaphor, where the title of the book comes from:
I see sunlight flickering through the trees. Fragments of the stifled emotions and desire we do not put into words, flit across them, like shadows moving through the wavering light. Deep below the dappled sunlight, fish twist and turn at the bottom of a dark-blue pool […] it is impossible to see them clearly or count them.
Aiko notices their presence, in and out of this room as she thinks of the fish. She sees Hiro has retreated mentally, he’s deep inside his own head just like the fish who disappear into the darker reaches of the pool with a flick of their fins. They are completely present with each other only fleetingly, as dappled sunlight dances across and illuminates them. They come together, then scuttle into the darkened corners, nursing their wounds and planning their next move. The same metaphor occurs at a pivotal point in the novel and gives a sense of the light illuminating different worlds, universes and possibilities.
I’m being so careful not to give away a single revelation or twist, but there are a few and they are unusual and surprising. This is a really unique psychological thriller, it seems sparse, but actually has so much depth and richness. I found myself completely immersed in this couple’s story, both the visible and the invisible. Still playing with memory, the pair delve into their childhoods, trying to work out what makes each other tick and discover how they ended up here. One has more memories of their childhood than the other, but can we trust what we remember? Our impression of something, may be no more than a fleeting glimpse of a much bigger picture. We may have based a lifelong idea of a situation or person on a mere fragment. Even the things we use to jog our memory can be misleading, such as photographs. Hiro muses on how we’re pushed into smiling for photos, to look like we’re enjoying ourselves and love the people we’re with. If we believe our photo albums, the picture we have of the past is distorted. There are so many things going on behind the scenes that are never captured – the moments in the deep blue water.
Published by Bitter Lemon Press 16th June 2022.
Meet The Author
Author: Riku Onda, born in 1964, has been writing fiction since 1991 and has published prolifically since. She has won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers, the Japan Booksellers’ Award, the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize and the Naoki Prize. Her work has been adapted for film and television.
Translator: Alison Watts is an Australian-born Japanese to English translator and long time resident of Japan. She has wrote the translation of The Aosawa Murders, Aya Goda’s TAO: On the Road and On the Run In Outlaw China and of Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa.
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