King Penguin, 1985
Original Japanese Title: Oi Naru Genei, 1962translated by Simon Grove
An oldie but still a goodie, The Master Key begins with a highly-publicized architectural experiment: engineers are about to move an entire five-story building to make way for widening an existing road. The engineers have assured the women who live there that they can remain in their apartments for the move, and that they won't notice a thing. They've even convinced the inhabitants of the building that they should all fill a glass with water and watch it ... they won't even see a ripple. And as the story opens, that is what many of the women are doing. Then -- three flashbacks: an accident involving a man wearing women's clothing, the burial of a child's body in the building's basement, and the tale of the kidnapping of the young son of an American army officer stationed in Japan.
The K Apartments for Ladies is not only a residence, but is also the world which these women occupy. It is a place where, according to one woman, a person can imagine that
old women pass their days in silence still gazing at the broken fragments of the dreams of their youth, every now and then letting fall a sigh that echoes down the corridor, until they combine on the stairway and roll down to the cavernous hallway, raising one long moan...Ironically, the original purpose of the building was to serve as a place where "Japanese women could emancipate themselves," where single young ladies could live alone. Fifty years earlier, when the building was constructed, that was almost unheard of, and people would often look at it with "envious curiosity." However, now the residents are growing old, living with the "bright days of their pasts," now passing their time largely in a lonely existence of solitude and withdrawal. Rather than being free, women are now stuck there, with nowhere else to go, keeping parts of their past lives away from the prying eyes of others. And in the face of a changing outside world, many live there in order to continue old traditions. Now, with the theft of the building's master key, the safety of their world has been violated. Someone has access to things the residents would rather keep buried. In the midst of this world of secrets and solitude, there is one person who has no qualms about prying into the proverbial skeletons in the closets. The looming threat of deadly gossip would be, in some cases, too much to bear. Along with the moving of the building, the theft of the master key threatens to bring about that "one chance in a hundred" of the collapse of the world which these women inhabit, by making public the things they have kept hidden for a good portion of their lives.
The question of who took the key and why is only part of this story. Secrets upon secrets are revealed as the author delves into the lives of a few of these women to produce a novel that starts out on a high note of tension and stays that way up until the very end. But The Master Key is not only a mystery novel; it also offers a psychological portrait of aging women dealing with their pasts and the loneliness of their present situations.
The story is told from several different points of view so the novel may be a bit confusing at times. The characters and their hidden lives are what drive this book, but I found myself having to go back a few times to remember who was who and pick up the threads of their individual narratives. While that was a bit distracting, the sleight-of-hand twist at the end made it all worthwhile, as did the sense of place that came alive in the very atmosphere of this stifling and gloomy apartment world in which these ladies live. And although it was written in 1962 and may seem a bit dated, the suspenseful tone that starts at the beginning does not let up until the end.
fiction from Japan