Penance – Kanae Minato

March 31, 2019 § 2 Comments

First published in Japanese in 2012
Translated into English by Philip Gabriel in 2017


Someone, a young woman, writes a letter addressed to Asako. We don’t know who she is, not yet, but she and Asako obviously share knowledge of a dark history—a murder that had occurred in a small country town when she was only 10 years old. A murder that she had witnessed. A murder that has followed her around for the past 15 years. A murder that was never solved.

The murder of her friend Emily.

She was not the only person who was there when that incident happened. There were five of them that day—herself and Emily, and three of her childhood friends, Maki, Yuka, and Akiko. They were playing by the pool at their school when a stranger had walked up to them, someone in work clothes, and asked them for help in checking the ventilation fan for the changing rooms. Being the good children they were in that small country town, they all offered to go. But the man sized them up and said that he only needed one, or the changing room would be too cramped. And he chose Emily.

This incident affected all four girls, and now, 15 years later, four separate incidents spark their memories of that one fateful day, and they recall what had happened then, and how they had continued living their lives in the after.

Like Minato’s first novel Confessions, this novel is also written in the same manner, where each chapter is a new voice, telling their version of the story. And also much like ConfessionsPenance also had about it a cool, eerie aura to it. In fact, both books had so many similar qualities to them, it almost felt too easy to get trapped into a corner where I would be tempted to compare the two books.

If I did that, I would say that Confessions is the better novel. And indeed, that was my first impression after I finished the last word on the last page.

However, considering Penance on its own, I think this book was much less about finding out who the murderer was, than it was about how people could react and be affected in such different ways. It felt like a little study of character. It was as if the book was the answer to the question, “If a friend is assaulted and murdered, how would it affect you? Where would you end up?”

Some parts felt forced, and there were moments when I felt like maybe Minato hadn’t really thought it all out. And at times it felt slightly repetitive, which, I understand, is to be expected considering that they were all tracing back to the same incident in their individual memories.

Yet it was also fast-paced. It was compelling. It got me hooked, got me turning the pages. And it got me thinking, what book would Minato come up with next?


Read as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12.

It’s my last book for the challenge, which ends today. I came into the challenge a little late, but I’m extremely glad that I still decided to join. I managed to read SIX books for this challenge, a majority of which I thoroughly enjoyed. And starting the year with Japanese authors has gotten me back into my reading groove. Always an excellent thing.

This does not mark the end of my reading translated Japanese works, though. I’ve still got a few titles lined up, which I’m hoping to get to in the next month or so. But now that the challenge is over, it also means that I will consciously be picking out titles not written by Japanese authors.

I’m excited to see where else my reading journey will take me this year.

§ 2 Responses to Penance – Kanae Minato

  • Hi Michelle
    Nice review! I like the concept of a terrible event examined through the memories of four different characters, with all the variation and doubt that must come in after so much time has passed, and because they were so young at the time. It must be tough to avoid repetition, though, when viewing the same event four times, and I can imagine that this would affect the reading experience. But it sounds like a good read overall. I’d never heard of this writer, so thanks for the introduction!

    • Michelle says:

      Hi Andrew.

      Like you, I think the concept is a great one, because not only do we see the same incident from four different perspectives, we also get to find out how it affected four different individuals, depending on their character traits.

      I’m glad to have interested you in this author, and I do hope that you get to read her work soon.

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