Shadow Family – Miyuki Miyabe

October 22, 2009 § 9 Comments


Before embarking on my attempt to put my thoughts into bytes, I would like to put forward this one simple question:

What constitutes a family?

Is it enough to have a mother, father, and perhaps one or two siblings? Is that what a family is?


Shadow Family is a mystery story. Two people get murdered within a couple of days of each other, and seemingly unrelated. But thread from a striking blue parka left on both crime scenes soon prove to the police that things are more than meets the eye. Meeting dead end after dead end, one of the officers come up with a theory that could potentially make or break the mystery behind the curious deaths.

And it is here that the story finally starts to reveal itself.

One of the victims had, during the one year or so before his tragic death, been part of an online ‘family’. He called himself ‘Dad’, and his family consisted of ‘Mom’, ‘Minoru’, and ‘Kazumi’. A 4-member family. A typical family set-up, only that it was all virtual.

Upon finding out about this make-believe family, how does the real-life family respond? And how do these deaths reveal the truth behind all the pain, anger and loneliness?


Personally, I feel that the mystery in this plot is not at all strong. In fact, I felt like I already knew who the culprit was half-way through the book. However, I also feel that the redeeming point of this book is how the story unfolds. The mystery of the plot itself may not have been its strongest virtue, but certainly the way the characters were introduced, and how certain things were thrown into light just when you least expect it… These make the plot feel less significant.

We’re made to think, exactly why does a man with his own family go in search for a virtual family on the Internet? What drives a person to such measures? Then we are given a chance to see things from the wife’s perspective. How would one feel if her husband were to find another ‘wife’ on the Internet? Does one feel lonely? Does one feel like a failure?

How about the people with whom this man forms a ‘family’ with? Why does one choose to be the virtual daughter of a stranger?

On the face of it, this is a mystery story. But underlying this story is the undeniable search for connection. Under the surface of it all, is the question of how each different person reacts to a given set of circumstances. How does one overcome feelings of loneliness and desperation?

At the end of it all, when family ties start to tangle up into a big mess, or maybe fray away at the ends, what is it that holds the family unit together?


Rating: 3.5

This is the kind of story that you need to finish, and sit on for a few days before making any conclusion about it. The many layers within the story are laid upon each other lightly and subtly, but one can hardly ignore the very strong themes that reside within them.


Postscript: This qualifies for the Japanese Literature Challenge, but does it qualify also for the RIP IV Challenge, and also the Hello Japan! mini-challenge?

Postscript #2: This DOES in fact qualify! =)


§ 9 Responses to Shadow Family – Miyuki Miyabe

  • Sakura says:

    I read Miyabe’s All She Was Worth many years ago and loved it. It’s in the vein of Natsuo Kirino’s novels giving us a dark and desperate view of contemporary Japan, much bleaker than Haruki Murakami’s work. I’ve been wanting to read Miyabe’s other novels but haven’t had a chance yet. Shadow Family sounds more like a study of Japanese familial life and society enclosed within a mystery structure than a straightforward mystery. It seems to have given you a lot to think about.

    I’ve just finished Kirino’s Grotesque which was pretty heavy on the desolation and alienation within modern society so will be reading some fantasy and mysteries before coming back to tackle some more Japanese fiction.

  • Susan says:

    It sounds to me like the book qualifies for all three challenges–wow!!!

    Intriguing question about what constitutes family. Banana Yoshimoto also has some interesting things to say about family in her novel, Kitchen.

    As always, I enjoyed reading your review, Su. 🙂

  • Mel U says:

    Thanks for sharing your post on this-I will look for this book-the more Japanese novels I read the more I am into that area-I am starting to read older Japanese novels now-

  • su says:

    @ Sakura: Miyabe’s All She Was Worth seems to be very highly recommended. Maybe I should try that book sometime too. Though I’m not so sure I want to try Natsuo yet. Maybe later.

    @ Susan: Yay! I’m going to update this post, and qualify it for all three challenges then!

    @ Mel: I know what you mean. It sort of feels like an addiction. You just end up wanting to read more and more titles by Japanese authors, to discover a whole new world, almost. =)

  • Bellezza says:

    I can’t imagine anything that Miyabe writes not qualifying for the RIP IV, or Tanabata’s mini-challenge this month: there seems to be an eerie quality in her works, although I’ve only read Crossfire and All She Was Worth. It seems that today it is impossible to define family as one father, one mother, and children. We are such a varied society, with such complex needs, there’s no longer one way as I felt there was in the early sixties. When I was a child, with a child’s views.

  • velvet says:

    while the mystery didn’t seem to hold up, the issues raised by what is a “family” provides interesting points to ponder. i may read this just for that prodding. thanks.

  • tanabata says:

    Sure, this certainly counts for the Hello Japan! mini-challenge. The premise sounds quite intriguing, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it. I’ve only read All She Was Worth by Miyabe which I was a bit disappointed with, to be honest, but I’ll have to try another one at some point.

  • su says:

    @ velvet: No worries. The book does provide some good points to chew on I reckon. =)

    @ tanabata: I’m quite interested in reading All She Was Worth, now that I’ve read this, and also because I’ve heard that it’s one of her better works. It’s especially interesting to read books that have varying reviews and comments.

  • su says:

    @ Bellezza: I see what you mean. We’re definitely a very complex society these days, aren’t we?

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